As a fan of social media in general, I’ve also talked about how there is a problem with the way we often present idealized personas of ourselves, carefully avoiding the messy bits of our lives and making our lives look much more seamless and together than they really are.
So I was struck the other day when a friend who lives across the country posted a heartfelt admission. “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now,” he wrote. “Everything in my Facebook feed is about how bad things are right now, and how much worse they’re going to get: from what’s happening with people who are sick in my family, to the dysfunction in our national politics, to the way we are destroying the earth for our children and grandchildren. So I’m asking for help. What helps you when you feel overwhelmed by it all?” And, as if waiting for someone to ask that question, people rapidly responded. Some listed practices like prayer or meditation, physical exercise, intentional time with friends, or curling up with tea and a good book. Others posted songs, poems, or favorite stories. People of faith posted favorite Scripture passages or theological soundbites.
But not once did anybody say, “You know, when I’m feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to turn, what really helps me is to listen to the details of a real estate transaction.” Not a single person said, “You know, when I’m feeling surrounded and overwhelmed by everything in my life and in the world, these words bring me comfort and peace: ‘I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and 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.’” I mean, all it needs is a good subsection on zoning variances and we’d all feel like everything is going to work out okay, right?
Well, I suppose it makes sense that most of this passage seems on the dull and dreary side. Jeremiah is not who you would pick if you were looking for a motivational speaker for your next corporate training event. He’s certainly not who you would turn to for reassurance in times of anxiety or despair. He’s a downer; I mean, a serious downer. The guy’s whole thing is doom and gloom, judgment and woe. He’s so renowned for being this way and saying such things that his name is now a term for an entire literary genre: the jeremiad, which is defined as “a prolonged and bitter complaint, a cautionary or angry harangue.”
He’s so notorious and aggressive about it that he’s been arrested by the king of Judah just to shut him up. And since it’s not like there was a Bill of Rights back then, I can’t really say I blame the king. As this passage opens, the Babylonian Empire has Jerusalem surrounded and cut off, and it’s quite clear that nothing can or will stop them from conquering the city and the kingdom. So he’s had Jeremiah confined because Jeremiah won’t stop going around Jerusalem prophesying the imminent destruction of the city and the kingdom by the Babylonians, because the king has put his faith in the uncertainties of political alliances and intrigue rather than in God’s covenantal promises, and his faith is very clearly going to be proven to be misplaced.
So in one sense, it is just like Jeremiah to respond this way to what must have seemed like, if not the end of the world, then certainly the end of life as the Jewish people knew it: an end that seemed to be challenging the deepest promises of God to be their God and for them to be God’s people as the recipients of God’s Holy Law and Holy Land.
If this were a movie, this is where somebody would stand up on the rubble of one of the defensive walls, with the torches of the vast Babylonian army flickering ominously in the darkness behind him like a sea of angry flames ready to burn the city down, and give an impassioned speech about how as long as one person in Jerusalem still draws breath, hope is still alive for the Jewish people. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, we get Jeremiah droning on and on about deeds and scales and signed copies and witnesses and seals, going into excruciating detail about the legal steps and obligations of him acquiring this piece of land from his cousin. Who cares?
Well, in normal circumstances, the technicalities of a real estate transaction may not be inspiring in themselves, but what they signify is usually something we care a lot about. The purchase of land, of a home, inevitably embodies a significant commitment: a commitment of significant financial resources, which is increasingly difficult for people to do these days; a commitment of time, because conventional wisdom is you should not buy if you think you might stay less than five years, because too many things can go wrong in a short period of time; and it is a commitment of your greatest hopes and dreams.
To buy property is to literally invest oneself in the future of a place, to bind yourself to it and to say that this is where I intend to live my life, or raise my family, or retire in peace. And because it is such a significant investment, the steps and processes for acquiring or transferring property have always been considerable, as if giving you a chance to be sure you’re really committed to do this as you go through it.
I’ve only done it once myself; I purchased a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City jointly with the congregation I was ordained to serve there, because the congregation wanted its pastors to be invested literally and figuratively in the City, and saw it as a good investment for the church’s investment funds, as well. And with two bedrooms, it was definitely both; a better financial investment than just one, but also a promise and a hope that we hoped we would, not too long into the future, welcome a child into our lives there.
I remember spending literal months getting together the reams of documents for the mortgage, for the seller, and for the board of directors of the building, and going through stage after stage of review. Finally, one Friday afternoon, we went to the law offices of the seller with our lawyer and spent hours exchanging and signing copy after copy of legal and financial documents. But when it was done, I remember this strange feeling in the pit of my stomach that I couldn’t decide whether it was exhilaration or anxiety, joy or fear. I think it was all of that at once and more.
I remember going home and confirming with the movers that they would be moving all our possessions into our new home the following Thursday after the apartment walls all got a new coat of paint. And then I looked out the window of our current one-room apartment that faced west with a (mostly-blocked) view of the Hudson River as the sun was beginning to go down for what I knew what one of the last times there. It was September 7, 2001.
Four days later, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a besieged city as I helped my congregation respond to the horrifying attacks that day. The next couple of days, frankly, are a blur in my memory, but I do remember the evening of September 12. It seemed like six months had passed in those 36 hours or so, but in the midst of everything else, the moving company called. I assumed that, because the island of Manhattan was still sealed off, they weren’t coming because their trucks were in New Jersey. I was surprised to find I was wrong.
“No, they’re re-opening the bridges tomorrow,” they said, “so we’re coming.” I asked to reschedule under the circumstances, but they said it was either then or three months from now. I checked in with the other pastor, and he encouraged me to do it and use the time out of the office to start preparing for what promised to be very important Sunday services. So on September 13, 2001, I sat out on the sidewalk in front of my new building, in the midst of a city we all assumed at that point would be in an ongoing state of siege, surrounded by boxes containing all my possessions, listening to Air Force fighters on combat air patrol overhead, and scribbling a draft of the prayers of the people for the coming Sunday services.
That Sunday, I remember greeting a church family in the Narthex after the surface. Like everyone else, their faces were grey and their eyes were red. The father spoke to me off to the side, and he confessed that he was thinking about pulling the kids out of school and leaving the City to go to his parents upstate. Like most people, they believed that it would not be a one-time attack, but was the first of many to come. “This is just the beginning,” he whispered; “I don’t want to run away, but I don’t want to be stupid, either.”
He wasn’t the only person saying things like that at the time. Two weeks later, this passage from Jeremiah was the lectionary reading of the day. And as I listened to Jeremiah’s detailing of the legal minutiae of the transaction, I remembered my own experience a few weeks earlier, and with a sudden jolt I realized that every boring word of it is a radical declaration of faith and hope in God’s irresistible and unstoppable grace: that what he was saying, despite everything that seemed to suggest otherwise, is that people in the future would care about these legal processes and documents and honor them, that there was a future in which it would matter who owned this land, and that the land itself would be a garden of our greatest hopes and dreams, and not a graveyard.
And if God’s greatest prophetic pessimist, Jeremiah, believed that, then maybe I could, too. By the time Jeremiah concluded by saying, “for thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” I thought I had never heard poetry or music or Scripture itself with greater beauty or power than this passage. At the end of the service, the father of that family approached me again, but his eyes were clear this time. “This is just the beginning,” he said, “and we’re not going to run away, because God is right here.”
It’s said that the first three rules of real estate are location, location, and location. And what it means, of course, is that the value of real estate is overwhelmingly determined by where it is and what is near to it. And so it is with Jeremiah’s field, and our very lives and world, because they are located in the center of God’s covenantal promises to us, promises that never waver or fail.
No matter how overwhelmed or surrounded we may feel, no matter how under siege we may be, God promises that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” And so our calling is to live into that hope in lives of concrete and faithful action wherever we find ourselves, tending the lands entrusted to us, making and redeeming promises of our own in order that they will last a long time, and trusting fully and finally that the only location that matters in the end is the one we can never leave: the presence of Jesus Christ, who is called Emanuel, which means, “God with us.”