Hopeful Fools

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Jeremiah 32:1-15 Jeremiah received the Lord’s word in the tenth year of Judah’s King Zedekiah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. At that time, the army of the Babylonian king had surrounded Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined to the prison quarters in the palace of Judah’s king. Judah’s King Zedekiah had Jeremiah sent there after questioning him: “Why do you prophesy, ‘This is what the Lord says: I’m handing this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will occupy it; and Judah’s King Zedekiah will be captured and handed over to the king of Babylon; he will speak to the king of Babylon personally and see him with his very own eyes. And Zedekiah will be carried off to Babylon to live out his days until I punish him, declares the Lord. If you make war against the Babylonians, you will fail.’”

Jeremiah said, The Lord’s word came to me: Your cousin Hanamel, Shallum’s son, is on his way to see you; and when he arrives, he will tell you: “Buy my field in Anathoth, for by law you are next in line to purchase it.” And just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel showed up at the prison quarters and told me, “Buy my field in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for you are next in line and have a family obligation to purchase it.” Then I was sure this was the Lord’s doing.

So I bought the field in Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, had it witnessed, and weighed out the silver on the scales. Then I took the deed of purchase—the sealed copy, with its terms and conditions, and the unsealed copy— and gave it to Baruch, Neriah’s son and Mahseiah’s grandson, before my cousin Hanamel and the witnesses named in the deed, as well as before all the Judeans who were present in the prison quarters.  I charged Baruch before all of them: “The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Take these documents—this sealed deed of purchase along with the unsealed one—and put them into a clay container so they will last a long time. The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”

***

Before we get back to Jeremiah, I want to tell you a story about another prisoner.

I imagine you know the name Nelson Mandela, but you may not be familiar with Mac Maharaj. The two men were imprisoned together at Robben Island in South Africa, in the time of Apartheid, when South African law set up strict distinctions between Black Africans and White Africans. Mandela was already famous when he was imprisoned, but his time in prison changed him, refined him, prepared him to become, eventually, the first Black president of South Africa.

Mandela was in prison for twenty-seven years. He had no reason to hope that he would be released; no reason to think he could make a real difference from behind bars. Yet each night, when the wardens were not watching, Nelson Mandela would write.

Ten to fifteen pages, every night, pages that detailed his own fight against Apartheid, but also laid out a defense of the rights of all people. He would pass the pages around the prison, to his friends also jailed there, because what he was writing was not just to pass the time. He meant it to be read. He needed it to be heard.

But there was no publisher in the Robben Island prison. All that work, all that writing, and no way to get it out.

Yet every night, he wrote. When the pages were done, Mandela would pass them along to Mac Maharaj. Mac, you see, “had a special talent. Mac could write in very very tiny letters. So every night, Mac would take completed pages from Mandela’s manuscript and copy them in the tiniest writing you could imagine, and by time they were done, they had two copies: one, the original, six hundred pages of Mandela’s story, ready to be buried in the ground alongside all the other masterworks produced at Robben Island, ready to be saved for some unknown day yet to come; and then the other, the copy, barely fifty pages, small enough, small enough to risk it, small enough to risk sending it into the urgent fray of a world that so desperately needed to hear its witness…

One day, Mac was sent home from Robben Island, but not before he’d had a chance to prepare. They sent home his books, too, even photo albums, and behind each of the photos he had spliced and cut those fifty pages, every tiny word of Mandela’s memoir, and in his freedom he shipped those pages out of the country, and those pages became Mandela’s landmark Long Walk to Freedom, the definitive story of the fight that brought down Apartheid. That one copy, sent into the urgent need of the world, that one copy joined the fight that tore down those dividing-walls once and for all.” (Matt Gaventa, He is Not Here)

It must have felt, some nights, like a hopeless task. Bent over the paper, making tiny, tiny letters in the dim light. There must have been days they wondered if they were crazy, if it was worth it, if anyone would care. It sounds a little crazy, even now, even knowing what became of those pages. Prisoners writing books.

So let’s get back to Jeremiah for a minute. The prophet Jeremiah was also in prison, also, perhaps, for sabotage, for railing loud and long against the political leaders of his day. Jeremiah knew that war was coming, that the Babylonians were about to sweep through Israel and it was going to be bad. He knew and he told everyone and the King, King Zedekiah, was trying his best to shut that noise down.

So we find Jeremiah today shut up in the king’s prison, although he, like Mandela, seems to have been allowed to have visitors. We have a dramatic setup to what turns out to be a very—dare I say it—dull story.

Jeremiah receives the word of the Lord again—but this time not about war, or judgment, or kings, but about a visit from his cousin, and a real estate prospect.

Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, has a field. He wants to sell, but it’s family land, so he offers it to Jeremiah first. Jeremiah buys it. They draw up all the legal documents and contracts, same as we do today. Jeremiah has them witnessed in front of all the other prisoners. Jeremiah seals up the deed to the land in a clay jar, so it will “last a long time.”

It is a basic, everyday transaction. A man buys a field.

And it is also a crazy story. The man is in prison. He can’t work the field. He can’t build a house in the field. He can’t even visit the field. Why does he want a field?

And even beyond that, Jeremiah has been prophesying that war is coming, and that the enemy is going to win. Who buys a field when the whole country is about to be taken over? The Babylonians are not going to retreat from Jeremiah’s field just because he comes in waving a deed of sale under their nose. He’s throwing away his money. He’s insane. He’s a fool.

A fool who knows God.

Did you hear it? Right at the end. God told him to buy a field, but God also told him why: “The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”

The Babylonians are coming, Jeremiah knows. It’s going to get bad. But he also knows they aren’t staying. There’s hope for the future, even if it’s a long way off.

Store your deeds somewhere safe, because eventually, it’s going to matter that you own this field. It’s going to be yours, yours to till, to build on, to sell. Things will get good again. Have hope.

Mandela was in prison, and he wrote a book. Maharaj was in prison with him, and he dedicated his nights to the chance—the very chance—that he could help get that book to the light of day. Jeremiah was in prison, and he bought a field. He bought a field, to show everyone—everyone in the king’s palace, everyone in the prison with him—that all was not lost. Not with God.

Hopeful fools, the lot of them.

I wonder—I wonder if we are willing to look foolish to hold onto hope? What are we willing to do—not just believe, not just long for, not just think about—what are we willing to do to act out our hope, even when we look crazy for doing it?

I’m not even talking about grand gestures. I’m talking about the small things.

I’m talking about signing up for a pottery class when you’re pretty sure you’ll be terrible at it, because you know you need more creativity in your life.

I’m talking about picking up the phone to make that first therapy appointment, even though you’re not sure anything can get better.

I’m talking about tossing that bottle into the recycling bin, even though you know how much bigger and more complicated climate change is.

I’m talking about going down on your knees in prayer, even though you aren’t sure anyone is listening to you.

I’m talking about sending in that job application, even though you think you’ll never get it.

I’m talking about setting money aside for that trip, even though Lord knows there are other bills to pay.

I’m talking about showing up for church, even though what you really need is a day off.

I’m talking about registering to vote, even when the world of politics seems far out of our control.

I’m talking about telling your stories to your grandchildren, even though you don’t think they really care.

I’m talking about smiling at that stranger, even though it feels like such a little, nothing thing to do.

Every day we have a choice: to act on our hope, or to act on our fear. The prophet Jeremiah knew how much there was to fear, knew the firepower of the Babylonians, knew their ruthlessness, their cruelty. Nelson Mandela and Mac Maharaj knew the system of Apartheid, knew they were considered monsters solely for the color of their skin, knew the odds they were up against.

Yet Nelson wrote a book, and Jeremiah bought a field. And he kept the deed safe and secure, because he acted on his hope that one day—one day—fields would again be bought and sold in Jerusalem.

I cannot promise you that every little foolish thing you do will end well. But if you are going to be foolish, be fools for hope: be a little more courageous, a little more creative, a little more loving, a little more bold than is wise. Read the news, by all means; know the score of the world, but don’t give up on it.

The story of God is the story of fools proving sages. It’s the story of seeds planted in the ground so long that it comes as a shock when they grow at last. It’s the story of the meek becoming the mighty and the mighty falling to their knees. It’s the story of a backwater carpenter changing the world. It’s the story of a scene of execution becoming a scene of utter triumph.

There is much to feel hopeless about. But friends, do not give up on buying your fields, on loving your children and your neighbor’s children, on praying your prayers, on planning your futures. Do not give up on the hope that God has planted in you.

After all, God’s never stopped being hopeful about us.

For hopeful fools, one and all, I give thanks. Amen.

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