Memory and Hope
by Rev. Kevin J. McLemore
Jeremiah 32:1-15Children's Sermon
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Zedekiah had said, â€œWhy 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; 4King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face and see him eye to eye; 5and he shall take Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall remain until I attend to him, says the Lord; though you fight against the Chaldeans, you shall not succeed?â€ 6Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, â€œBuy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.â€ 8Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, â€œBuy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.â€ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. 9And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of 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. 13In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
There was a wonderful woman in a congregation I once served who, on a weekend like this, Memorial Day weekend, I could always count on being present in worship, and who would always, always, request prayers for those who lost their lives in military service to this country, and prayers for the the families they left behind, and always she would end these beautiful heart-breaking prayer requests with tears, her eyes swelling up, and eventually, a series of quiet sobs. They were powerful reminders to us, those of us gathered for worship, on weekends like this, that there was a real human cost to the wars our country chooses to fightâ€”a cost so often hidden by the military at times, especially, in the last decade, and certainly the media, as well. Over the years, I got to know this woman very well, and she would share with me her memories of being a little girl, listening to the radio late at night, when the announcers would give war updates in the 1940â€™s on the radio, and sometimes, share the names of the local boys who had lost their lives, in the battles of the day. It shaped her profoundly, these late-night naming of the names, the names of local young men, boys, even, who had lost their lives in the sands of Iow Jima, or in the mountains of Korean Peninsula. And so on weekends like this, our congregation would pray, pray for the lives of the boys whom we didnâ€™t know, lost long ago, sometimes, and we prayed for what could have been, and we prayed for those they fought against, always, those boys and their families, who were grieving as deeply as our own families in this country.
Weekends like this and days like Veterans Days usually leave me a bit sullen, a bit depressed, because of what we are marking in time, the loss of these young men and now women to the madness of war, and our inability to make peace with each other, and sometimes, even our inability to recognize the pain of loss on the other side of a conflict. There has been some talk about the fact that humanity has become less violent over the past few thousand years, though that is sometimes hard to fathom, with the bloodbaths of the last 100 years or so. Whether or not that is true, the reality is that on weekends like this, on days like tomorrow, we stop to recognize that truth that new names, with lives and loves and stories that accompany those names, they keep getting added to the long list of those who should not be gone from this world, whose families will be forever scarred by the loss of their loved ones. Weekends like this, days like tomorrow, they are not good moments for me, and certainly for the woman who I used to pastor, and for many others, especially those who actually lost family and friends to war, though they are needed reminders of what the real cost of war is. What it leaves for me and sometimes others, is a sense of hopelessness, the feeling that the madness of killing each other will never end, and the long list will always have to be added to, each and every Memorial Day.
But being hope-less, being people without hope, is something that should be a strange, strange thing for us, we followers of this Jesus of Nazareth, this resurrected One. Cornel West has said that as a Christian, he was and is a â€œprisoner of hopeâ€â€”I like that phrase, the sense of being imprisoned by hope, of not ever quite being able to shake off the chains of hope, despite my best efforts, despite knowing the reality of days like tomorrow and what they memorialize. What we have before us this morning in our Scripture text is a moment in ancient Israel when all hope had been lost, when every day seemed like a day full painful memories, and yet the prophet Jeremiah offers them something more than words, something more than what I am going to try to offer you and me and that wonderful saint in my former congregation. What Jeremiah offers them is a gesture, an act, an enfleshment, an embodiment, that is meant to show them and us that all is not lost, that there is a future, a future that includes them, one where there will be no more names added to the list of those that died too young, that were gone too soon from this world.
You see, when Jeremiah buys this piece of property in our text, he is not only sitting in a prison on some trumped charges brought against him for treason, but he is about to buy a piece of property in a land that he believes will soon be destroyed by the Babylonians. Yet, he is one who has been prophesying this reality to the people, he knows what is about to happen, and yet he buys property in a land that is about to become worthless, a land where even newly minted property deeds will not likely be respected by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, the soon to be ruler of the land of Israel. The people have disobeyed God for too long, and God is going to allow the Babylonians to run over Israel like water runs over a waterfall. Jewish law said that Jeremiah had first dibs on buying this piece of property, in order to keep it in the family. But why would someone buy stock in a failing company, so to speak? Itâ€™s like buying stock in Bear Stearns a few days right before it went underâ€”and youâ€™re the Chief Financial Officerâ€”you know things are falling apart and fast. And yet, Jeremiah is told by God to buy that land from his relative, to keep it in the family, even when he knows whatâ€™s about to happen to Jerusalem.
And, just to put a fine point on it, this was no private, back-room saleâ€”Jeremiah signs the deed in front of everyone, everyone in the court of the guard, the county courthouse, so to speakâ€”it is no secret that the prophet of doom is buying land in the very land that he has said is doomed. But, of course, that was the pointâ€”to make it a public event, to make it an obvious sale, to put the notice in the paper that wonâ€™t be publishing a few days from then, so to speakâ€”to say it loud and proud, that even though the Babylonians will sweep through this land, though they will carry off our best and brightest to the city of Babylon, this land, these people, they have a future, there is hope. Jeremiah, the bringer of bad news, the proclaimer of destruction and punishment, is also the bringer of good news, the proclaimer that destruction and pain and war are not, NOT the end of Israel, NOT of the end of the story, NOT the end of us. There is a future, and thus there is hope.
In 1851, a man by the name of William Southard was in a small schooner on Lake Huron, making his way to a parcel of land that he and his partner William Stafford had bought from the government, some forty acres that had been originally designated as pensions for veterans of the War of 1812. Right at the thumb of Michigan, this land had promise, so Southard had heard, but he hadnâ€™t actually seen his new property yet, which is why he was on that schooner on that particularly fateful day. A problem had arisen during the journey: it had become clear to the crew of the schooner that a bad storm was coming and so they were unwilling to go much further. The solution: they simply deposited Southard on the shore, some distance from his newly bought land, leaving him only with a small skiff, a small boat, and they, they promptly left the area for a safe port.
Stuck on that beach with no place to go, but his newly purchased acreage, Southard set out on Lake Huron towards the area that he knew was his. The wind, the rain, the swells, were treacherous but he persisted with his paddle in that one man boat, rowing himself to a home he had never laid eyes on. The hours passed, his arms became wearier, even as the conditions worsened, and he must have surely wondered whether it had been a good idea to set out on a day like thisâ€”perhaps he should have just camped out until the storm passed. But at that moment, he was stuck with his decision, but he was starting to get a little desperate, I suspect, so desperate that he made a vow that if somehow, someway, he made it to shore alive, he would name that very spot as Port Hope. Well, the good news is that there is a place called Port Hope, and so Southard made it, and he kept his word. His business partner William Stafford and others opened up the area to lumbering and by 1858 his company dock was constructed and the mills were in operationâ€”in fact, one of the chimneys from the mill is still standing, and is the only remaining chimney standing from the lumbering era. The cover photograph of the lighthouse on your bulletin today is in Port Hope, a symbol for all those other William Southards that someone is looking out for them, that indeed, hope is nearby, hope is available even in the midst of a storm.
I think hope is exactly like Southard experienced it, something thrown out there on the waves of life, amidst of the storms of existence, a possibility, an impossibility, sometimes. Every time I share a word about hope, and I do it oftenâ€”Iâ€™m in the hope business, reallyâ€”I wonder whether anyone actually believes me and whether or not I believe it myself. I feel like the rabbi in a Eastern European city who one day summoned the townspeople to the village square, telling them that he had important announcement. The people gathered, but not without much grumbling at the inconvenience. The merchant resented having to leave his business. The wife complained because she had so many errands to run. But, out of respect, they went unwillingly to the town square. When all were present, the rabbi said, "I wish to announce there is a God in the world." That was all he said, but the people understood. They knew they had been acting as if God did not exist, as if there was no hope, no purpose, no rhyme or reason to this life and to this world, and no reason not to fall into despair. In moments like that, when I believe what I say, when I trust the one in whom I asked to speak of, I find my own way in the storm, and my feet finally settle on steady land after a long time, and I am reminded that, indeed, that my words are true because the God of whom they are spoken of is true and trustworthy, and that there is a reason to hope, there is a reason to believe when belief seems like nonsenseâ€¦there is always a Port Hope, right on the horizon, a place to stand, a place to feel safe, and to be safe, and a future beyond the hopelessness of the moment, or even of a day, a day like tomorrow, Memorial Day.
And so as people of Christian faith, a people who believe that the end of the story is always life, and not death, a people who believe that resurrection is end of Christâ€™s story, at least on this side of the veil, and, that this resurrection is, in the end, even the end of our own story, as people who believe such an absurdity, a hopeful absurdity, we are asked to buy land in Port Hope, to purchase a corner lot in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, that doomed city, with the Babylonians on its outskirts. Itâ€™s an absurd prospect, really, to do such a thing, but hope is sometimes an absurdity, resurrection itself sometimes a seeming impossibility, but there it isâ€”it is the only antidote to my despair, to our despair, that some lessons in this world will never, ever get learned, that we will forever be adding more names of young men and women to the long list of those we remember on Memorial Day. Whenever a preacher friend of mine would recount some difficult moment in his ministry or in his life, or his church, he would lay out the impossibility of the circumstances, the hopelessness of the situation, but then, in that wonderful Southern Pentecostal preaching style that was his roots, heâ€™d say, â€œbut, you know, we believed that God do a thingâ€¦â€ and at that moment, you knew you were about to hear the story of how God did indeed, do a thing. Iâ€™ve never forgotten those words, and in my better moments, my most trusting moments, I actually believe them as well. Amen.