Christ Centered Resources

Cousin Hanamel's Field

Rev. Ed Searcy

Jeremiah 32:1-15
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 27, 1998
It happens in King Zedekiah's tenth year on the throne ... which happens to be the eighteenth year of famous Nebuchadnezzar's reign. Nebuchadnezzar's troops - the crack brigades of the Babylonian military - have laid Jerusalem under siege. Jerusalem ... Zion ... the city built on a hill and surrounded by a great wall and promised protection by God Almighty. Jerusalem is under siege. The city is surrounded. No one gets out. No one gets in. All supplies of food and of water have been cut off. Outside the city walls the troops dig in for the final assault. Ramps are constructed. Archers practice daily. Siege 'guns' are prepared ... the great slingshots that will fling huge stones over the wall. Watching these preparations from inside the walls, Jerusalem's residents panic. The rations decrease day by day. The children are hungry and afraid. The political and military leaders can think of no way out ... except to turn to the priests and ask for prayers. It is all as Jeremiah has been predicting. He has seen it coming when no one dared believe that it was possible. They paid no attention to his warnings. So now, with the end so obviously at hand, King Zedekiah has Jeremiah arrested. Not thrown in prison, mind you. No, he has Jeremiah held under house arrest in the royal palace. The point is not so much to punish Jeremiah. He hasn't broken any laws. The point is to silence Jeremiah. He has become too much of a political embarrassment. His protests are now front page news. People are listening to him. And Zedekiah is sick and tired of so much bad press. He has enough troubles to worry about without some new controversy stirred up by Jeremiah. So he locks the prophet up. At his first opportunity, King Zedekiah has a word with his new house guest. The King wants to know why Jeremiah insists on saying that God is about to give Jerusalem to the King of Babylon on a silver platter. And more than that, he wants to ask why Jeremiah dares to claim that Zedekiah himself will be taken prisoner to Babylon so that God can deal with him there. You can be sure that King Zedekiah is not thrilled by such preaching ... and that he wants to know as many details as possible. Besides, perhaps Jeremiah is a spy. Maybe he knows things because he is a mole ... a traitor waiting to be rewarded once the city falls. The King interrogates Jeremiah: "Why have you been saying these things? Haven't you ever heard of 'self-fulfilling prophecy'? If you hadn't spread so much gloom and doom maybe we could have kept morale high. Why do you insist on being so negative, so critical, so judgmental? Why?" But Jeremiah doesn't answer Zedekiah's question. At least, he doesn't answer in the fashion that we or Zedekiah expect. For one thing, Jeremiah has been explaining himself endlessly. Surely Zedekiah knows the reasons for Jeremiah's tirades: He says he has been sent as a messenger from God bearing the news that God is finally fed up with the disobedience of his people and, so, has given them and their land to the super power of Babylon. Remember God's call to Jeremiah: "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow ..." (Jer. 1:9-10) This is precisely what Jeremiah has been doing. Zedekiah shouldn't need to ask. But Jeremiah has something else on his mind ... something that has come as a great surprise to him. "Just the other day", says Jeremiah, "I had a word from the Lord. It said, 'Uncle Shallum's son - cousin Hanamel - is going to come and offer you first right of refusal on the family plot over at Ananoth.' Well, I didn't know what to make of such a word. For one thing, how was Hanamel ever going to get into the city under these conditions. And for another thing why would I ever want to buy land in Israel now? I am in custody. Uncle Shallum's field is surely Babylonian property by now. I would be a fool to pay Hanamel one red cent for the worthless title to the land." Zedekiah can only nod his agreement. Jeremiah continues. "So you can imagine how my jaw dropped when who shows up here in the court of the guard but cousin Hanny himself! And I wasn't the only one who couldn't believe his eyes. The Royal Guards were absolutely convinced that the two of us must be agents of the Babylonian CIA. How else could Hanamel son of Shallum make his way through no man's land? But all of his papers - like mine - were in order. And Hanny knows the roads and fields around here like the back of his hand. It didn't surprise me that he managed to sneak into the city. What surprised me was that he had come with the title to the family field. and that he wanted to sell ... just as the Lord had said. 'Unbelievable'. That's what I said ... 'unbelievable'. Except that I had to believe it. This could not be a coincidence. This had to be a message from God. So I said 'yes' to cousin Hanamel. Then he was the one who said 'Unbelievable'. Both of us knew that the land wasn't worth a thing anymore. Still, I paid him the assessed value prior to occupation: seventeen silver shekels. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on the scales. It was notarized. Everything was legal. Then I gave it to Baruch for safekeeping and, in front of everyone, I told him: 'Be sure that you put this in a clay jar so that it lasts for a long, long time'." When Jeremiah finishes answering Zedekiah the King is nowhere to be found. Maybe he is satisfied ... although that is doubtful.. Perhaps he shrugs his shoulders in disbelief. More than likely he wanders off, confused by Jeremiah's nonanswer to his questions. In fairness, Jeremiah's answer to King Zedekiah is not directed at the King. Jeremiah has another audience in mind: "For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this field." (Jer. 32:15) Jeremiah is not speaking to the King. He is addressing those who no longer have houses and fields and vineyards ... he is speaking to a culture whose economy - whose way of life - has been left in tatters. Jeremiah's message is for the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of his generation. The message for his own time and generation is a message of disestablishment and destabilization and deconstruction. But already he can see another message on the horizon ... a message of hope for a lost and exiled generation. To his great surprise, nearing the end of his ministry, Jeremiah is for the first time given a Word that holds out the promise of "building and planting" (Jer. 1:10). Biblical scholars tell us about the exiled generation that Jeremiah addresses across time. They are the survivors and the children of survivors. They have been marched to a comfortable existence in distant Babylon. Here they live the life of a defeated people. The Babylonians set out to erase their culture. The children begin to adopt the modern ways of Babylon. The people forget the ancient faith of the Bible and are entranced by the attractions of Babylon's religions. Even those who work hard to 'keep the faith' begin to lose hope that they can ever go home again. These are the people, who recall Jeremiah's crazy land purchase all those years ago and finally understand. Now they see: it was an investment in the future, it was a crazy act of faith in God who would one day bring Jeremiah's kin home, it was a message to exiles … a message of hope sealed by Baruch in a clay jar and carefully preserved in countless Bibles through the ages for distant generations to rediscover. We recognize this message. It is the one that Nisga'a elders so carefully preserved for this generation. Besieged by European immigrants who overwhelmed the land of their ancestors the Nisga'a always remembered that the title to the land was in their name. Even as they were faced with a culture that set out to 'take the Indian out of the Indian' they remembered. Even as their children began to adopt the ways of Europeans they remembered. Even as the people began to forget the ancient songs and stories they remembered. They remembered that they had not lost title to the land. They remembered that God had always intended that feast halls and sweat lodges and potlatches shall again flourish in this land. It turns out that cousin Hanamel's field is closer than we had ever dreamed. All over North America mainline denominations are withdrawing, bit by bit, chaplain by chaplain from campus after campus. Besieged by financial difficulties and shrinking numbers and a less than friendly welcome from the academic community a growing number assume that campus ministries cannot survive. Chaplains find themselves increasingly marginalized on the campus and in the church. When we tell others in the church of our dreams for a revitalized United Church presence on the campus of what is likely North America's most secular university, they say: "You realize that the funding is drying up, don't you?" They look startled to hear the reply: "That's why we think it is so important that someone invests in it now". It is easy to imagine how cousin Hanamel reacts when Jeremiah says: "Sure. I'll buy the farm." Kari-Ann Scheldrup's arrival as Campus Minister this week is another signal to the church and the campus that, like Jeremiah, we are intent on buying in to a long term hope … not selling out to short term despair (even if that term seems a lifetime to us ... even if that term is a lifetime for us!) In a way, we worship on Hanamel's field every Sunday. The decision to lease this Chapel with a cash payment of seventeen silver shekels which, when exchanged into Canadian dollars and adjusted for inflation, amounted to $177,000 over ten years, looks a lot like Jeremiah's investment in hope. This Congregation chose not to close down or to leave the campus behind … even though the signs did not look good. Remember the mid 1980s: an average attendance of forty ... no university students ... no babies ... no toddlers ... nothing to suggest that the decline would end ... and a Presbytery report suggesting that it was time to give up the vision of a congregation on campus. Instead you chose to take up residence here and to trust that God did indeed have a future in store for you. But then a people of the Cross can do no other. Look at the Cross: the place where Christ is besieged on every side … a place of abandonment. Golgotha is anything but prime real estate. Yet, look again. The Cross stands as the great sign of God's decision to buy into human history, to invest in its future … and in our future. Golgotha, the place of the skull, is also the place of resurrection and hope. Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God is at hand. His contemporaries look around and can only see that they live in occupied territory. Life hardly seems heavenly. Far from it. All sorts of malignant forces lay siege to their lives: inhuman greed. incipient racism. innocent suffering. The Kingdom of God is at hand? God is about to take possession of this turf? They can hardly contain their doubts. But then Jesus does what Jeremiah has done: he makes investments that others cannot believe. He calls lepers his own. He calls women of the street his own. He calls tax-collectors his own. He calls Samaritans his own. He calls sinners his own. He calls me his own. He calls you his own. Jeremiah invests in the future of a land that is occupied. Jesus invests in the future of a people who are without hope. In Jesus and in Jeremiah we meet a God who invests in the future of Creation at the very moment when it seems to have no future. This is the reason that a people of the Cross can do no other but invest in new life even when there seems nothing but death. What do you see? Do you see a marriage in shambles with no way ahead? Do you see a church too ashamed and afraid to confront the legacy of its past? Do you see a world where the poor lie forgotten in the dust? Look again. See what Jeremiah sees. See a field of hope already planted. Look again. See what Jesus sees. See a neighbour worth the investment. See … and ignore the temptation to sell out or to walk away. See … and say 'yes' to Jeremiah's call to buy into the future of the devastated earth. See … and say 'yes' to Christ's call to walk with the besieged of God's earth. The Cross is God's 'Yes' to us. It begs the question: Will you ... will we ... say 'Yes' to God? "Will You Come and Follow Me" - Voices United #567