Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
What is going on with Jeremiah?
The Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem, and he’s buying property.
Jeremiah is a difficult book to grasp at the best of times. It’s a wide-ranging collection of various genres and styles of writing, many by the prophet Jeremiah, some probably by his followers, and all of it assembled and edited (most likely) by scholars living in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. So it’s hard for us to get our heads around it.
For the last several weeks we’ve been hearing his laments and prophesies about the coming judgment of the kingdom. And now, when the besieging army is at the gates…at the moment it looks darkest…he shifts to this prophesy of consolation. What is going on?
Very often what we are missing…not just in reading scripture…but in life in general…what we lack…is context. And context…a broader vision…a longer view…is what the church is supposed to provide. So, some context.
Jeremiah is actually in prison at this point (that’s what the “court of the guard” is). He’s been put there by King Zedekiah, for telling the king that Babylon is coming and is going to destroy the kingdom and exile him and his people (Jer. 32:3-5). And while in prison, his cousin Hanamel shows up and they execute this very detailed land transaction. This would be like one of us, knowing full well that sea-levels are on the rise, and the destruction of global climate change is almost upon us, purchasing a giant section of the Charles River Esplanade for future development (see Surging Seas Risk Zone Map). That seems crazy, and even Jeremiah thinks so.
A little further in the chapter he says to God, “What you have threatened has come to pass…Yet, you say to me: Buy the land…when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans.” (Jer 32:25).
But hear how God responds, ‘Yes. The destruction is upon you, AND…”I will gather [the exiles] from all the lands to which I banished them…I will bring them back…and let them dwell secure…They shall be My people, and I will be their God…I will not turn away from them. (Jer 32:36-41).
Context…a longer view.
This is always our predicament. We have one context…and our limited view of our immediate situation. God has a very different context…God sees differently than we do…”For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord,” to quote another prophet (Isaiah 55:8).
How can we learn to see and hear and act more out of God’s wider context and less out of our own narrow context?
Compared to Jeremiah, and compared to last week, Luke today seems pretty easy to understand. There’s a rich man and a poor man. They both die. The poor man is carried off by angels to be with Abraham. The rich man is tormented in Hades. That seems pretty clear….and follows Jesus’ admonition last week that you can’t serve God and wealth. It resonates with today’s Epistles’ (often misquoted and misremembered) line that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” But again, some context…let’s take a wider view.
Luke more than any of the other Gospels, pushes a contrast between rich and poor. In Luke we have the Magnificat, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 2:52-53). Luke’s Beatitudes are both blessings and woes: “blessed are you who are poor…but woe to you who are rich.” (Luke 6:20-26). The parable of the dishonest manager last week, and this one of Lazarus today are unique to Luke. So that’s one context…these are part of Luke’s larger agenda. But that larger agenda isn’t just “four-legs good, two legs bad;” poor=good, rich=bad. It might seem that way, but that’s not exactly what he’s doing.
Luke also loves the metaphor of sight…vision…The shepherds see the angel and the baby, but no one else does. Luke gives us the Magnificat, and also the Nunc Dimitis, the song of Simeon, Mary and Joseph bring the baby to the Temple and Simeon sees him and exclaims, “for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). Saul, the persecutor of Christians, on the road to Damascus, struck blind and after three days regains his sight as Paul the Christian evangelist (Acts 9). Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus meet a stranger and when he takes bread and blesses and breaks it, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” (Luke 24:31). Vision is vital to Luke’s message.
What did the rich man do wrong? The text doesn’t say that he was in any way mean to Lazarus, or persecuted him. It might imply that he denied him food, but the text doesn’t actually say that. The rich man’s sin (what breaks the relationship between him and Lazarus) is not that he’s rich, it has to do with limited context and lack of vision. Lazarus is at his gate everyday, but the rich man never sees him (maybe he had a private entrance). And when he does see him, he sees only someone beneath him. He never sees him as an equal…a peer…a fellow child of God, he sees him as a servant. “Send Lazarus” to help me, warn my brothers.”
The primary sinful condition that wealth and privilege causes is often blindness. The inability (and maybe unwillingness) to see the world in any way other than within the narrow confines of wealth and privilege. This was brought home very powerfully to me this Lent as we began to wrestle with how to liberate ourselves from racism. In one session we did an exercise where we all faced the same direction in the dining room, but were asked to place ourselves along a continuum with those who perceived themselves higher on the socio economic ladder (those with means, and power) closer to wall we were facing, and those who perceived themselves as having fewer means and power further away. We saw what we could see, and as I a straight, cis-gendered, white, highly educated, man with an essentially tenured job stood pretty close to the wall and all I could see was the wall. I certainly couldn’t see anyone behind me. Then we were asked to switch, and find another place. If you were lower down, come up higher…if you were close to the wall, move back. The difference was stark and immediate. As you can imagine…people who were farther away could see a whole lot more.
Our media, our culture doesn’t especially like context. It prefers quick takes and dramatic reactions. We need more context…we need a broader and deeper vision. We need to literally and metaphorically take some steps back…look around…and see who is missing…what’s being left out…recognize the damage done by our actions and our inactions, and remember that God takes the long view.
We need space in our lives to breathe…and learn how to see differently. See how God sees, see how others see, especially those who are far too easy for us to ignore. We need context…and communities of context…communities that support us in discovering and making meaning…support us in recovering and repairing this fractured world….communities like All Saints. Let us pray that we may continue to receive that Godly vision…that long view…and that God will fill us with the courage to carry it out.