Carl Duncan’s death this week prompted many memories, but one in particular came to mind. At the second Session meeting after my arrival in 2011, Carl raised his hand right after the opening prayer to ask “When are we going to start the strategic planning process?”
I smiled warmly and replied that I thought it was a bit premature to be thinking of that before we’d even had a chance to get acquainted.
But Carl was undeterred. His insistence that we get on with it led to a process of congregational discernment, conversation, focus groups, surveys, two capital campaigns, design process, construction, not to mention the three ring circus involved in the permitting process… planning that has been renewed and reaffirmed and reshaped over ten years, and continues right up to the present.
This generation of Central members–that’s you–has made significant investment in our thriving future, just as generations before us did.
Carl did not live to see its successful completion. But he told me on more than one occasion “I never said it would be easy. I said it would be worth it.” Carl thought so.
And so did the prophet in our scripture text this morning. Jeremiah made an investment in a future he would never see. In fact, when the scene opens, Jeremiah was incarcerated by his fellow citizens for telling the truth that they would soon be conquered by their enemy Babylon, the temple destroyed, and many of them killed or exiled. No one much liked Jeremiah. And when he attributed the collapse of the nation to God’s judgment—well, that earned him a trip to jail. Do not pass go; do not collect two hundred dollars.
It’s no spoiler to say that Jeremiah was right. Israel was overtaken and it would be generations before they would live in peace in the land of their ancestors. And long before that came to pass, a distant cousin of Jeremiah visited him with a desperate request, to buy from him a parcel of land in what would soon be occupied territory.
A risky, some might even say foolish, investment. For Jeremiah it was a word from the Lord.
Listen for God’s Word to the Church–which is to say, to you and me.
[Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-17]
Nothing may be too hard for God, but what about us?
A peek at some recent headlines: Global Markets Nose-Dive; Stocks Plummet as Recession Fears Grow; Markets Head Down as Interest Rates Climb. You might wonder whether this is the right time to be talking about investment at all.
Although, one of my friends who monitors financial portfolios for others as well as his own told me that despite current economic volatility, he sleeps like a baby at night. . . you know, he wakes up every hour and cries!
Why would Jeremiah make this investment in such an unpromising time? The Babylonians were knocking down the city gates; the nation’s destruction was at hand. The text hints that he might have had some reservations initially, but came to see it as the call of God. He felt compelled to buy the land, which was already under foreclosure, but could be redeemed by a family member.
The text narrates the sale in excruciating detail. Ordinarily two copies of the purchase agreement would be made; an “open” version which functioned as a working document, which parties could reference to settle disputes. The “closed” document preserved a copy of the original to insure that nothing was changed or ignored. Here, the transactions are observed by many witnesses, and both open and closed copies are placed in earthenware jars to keep them in perpetuity. [from Working Preacher commentary on this text, 2016]
The prophet preached that day, not with words but with a deed to some property. This very public action was intended to represent future hope in the uncertain present. The agreement would be preserved; the land would be ready. . . some day.
In Jeremiah’s mind it was a sure bet, because the God of the Covenant–the God he worshiped and served– had promised that “houses and fields and vineyards would again be bought in the very land” now being overtaken by enemies.
When you think about it, Jeremiah’s investment was an audacious act of faith. He spent his own money for land he might never use–and in fact he never did.
The purchase was not simply for himself, but for future generations; to send the message out that God was working even in the terror of war and humiliating loss and exile to restore the nation’s fortunes. Out of great hardship and suffering would come a new beginning. Jeremiah and all those who watched the transaction, would be able to say confidently in the present: The Babylonians control the land for now. But someday it will be ours again. The ancient version, perhaps, heard again in the testimony of the Black Church: It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.
I never said it would be easy; I said it would be worth it.
Oh my goodness, friends, what anxiety we face about the future! Economic stress and distress for sure, but also climate change, global unrest, deepening hostility in our own divided country.
As I held my tiny newborn granddaughter this summer, I wondered what her life would be in this broken and beautiful world. As a congregation we face challenges: from decreasing engagement with church (for the first time in US history, the number of people who describe themselves as “unaffiliated” with any religious organization exceeds the number who claim affiliation), to the expanding needs of neighbors without shelter, without employment, without social supports to create strong families and livelihoods.
In a recent Session conversation, we acknowledged that pandemic conditions have had some difficult consequences for families with school-aged children, and that we have not done enough to address their particular needs. We have invested boldly in our building as an effective instrument by which to serve, and this is not without a cost–an additional $80,000 annually for debt service.
We have used some of our endowment to make strategic investment in Central’s thriving future, while preserving some for succeeding generations. Seeking balance, expressing thanks for God’s providence throughout the years, responding to urgent needs, following Jesus, paying the bills. . . being church is not easy. I am glad and grateful for our faithful staff and leaders who believe it’s worth it.
Fact is, hope for the future affects the things we do in the present. It’s been awhile since I mentioned the Broncos in a sermon. But I think (I hope!) their team-building strategy illustrates the point. A vision for another Super Bowl Victory down the road has prompted the recruiting of a world class quarterback and a hungry head coach. There are going to be some bumps along the way–how could he not have gone for it on fourth and one!?!?–but it is an investment with potentially huge returns in a not-too-distant season.
Friends, when we are guided by a vision of God’s Kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven–even if we only catch glimpses of it now–investing in that future is a sure bet.
Because the truth is, God is invested in us.
Jesus came to show the world that this mortal flesh is created with Divine DNA. Jesus showed us there is healing for the many ways we’re broken. There is grace for all the ways we mess up. There is strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
And at the heart of it all, there is love and love–not death or debt or discouragement or anything else–will have the last word in human history.
“Hey, I heard about this field in Anathoth for sale. Are you in?”
Thanks be to God!