It has been an incredible week at NEXT Church. I've had very little to do with the inner workings of the conference, but I did have the opportunity to preach at the closing worship service. Here it is. (You can see some "summing up" statements and a few inside references.)
32:1 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. 32:2 At 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, 32:3a where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. 32:6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: 32:7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." 32:8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. 32:9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 32:10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales.
32:11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 32:12 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.
32:13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 32:14 Thus 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. 32:15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
Well, NEXT… here we are.
This week we’ve explored the deviance of Mr. Rogers.
We’ve strewn the chancel with sawdust and hand tools, and because it was a NEXT conference, there were Sharpies.
We’ve been ignited; we’ve been sorted into regions; we’ve been sent off to dinner with our prayers echoing in our ears; we’ve been folded and spindled.
We’ve disembarked from the ocean liner, safely in port, and instead joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
I stand here on this day, like Alika Galloway said on Monday, with equal parts hope and realism. And I find that an incredibly energizing place to be. And I can’t wait to talk to the congregation I serve about what has happened here… but I’m also at a loss for words to describe the experience.
We’re going back into our contested spaces. And we have to find a way to embody what’s happened here, but we’re also aware of how hard that is. Meanwhile, Sunday’s coming. Holy Week. Budgets to be balanced. Deferred maintenance to fret over. And neighbors in need. So, so much need.
If you’re like me, you’re going to want to schedule a few hours to sift through the notes you’ve taken here. You’re going to want to meet with a colleague who was here so you can debrief, or send an email to start planning that regional gathering, or pore over the liturgy so your congregation can break into pairs and do the confession and assurance in little groups of grace… You will certainly be talking to your finance committees to see how you might support the mission of NEXT.
And the day to day grind of ministry is going to make it very hard to stay NEXTy; and for some of us the pull back into ordinary time is too great; and sadly, a few of us are going to go home and run right smack into a funeral, so you know what… the picture of the waterfall on the screen on baptism Sunday is just fine.
What do we do with what has happened here? Where do we even start?
* * *
One of the benefits of experiencing a conference through Twitter is seeing instant feedback. Some of you are feeling the tension in the language of exile. I hear ya. Jeremiah’s call to build and plant and seek welfare is strong and clear, but in the Bible, that call comes amid exile, which is a complicated metaphor for us. We are not in exile. Declining membership is not exile. Losing our clergy parking space at the hospital is not exile.
But where we do feel a kinship with Jeremiah is that he, too, is living in a contested space. Jeremiah insists that God is at work through Babylon’s seige on Judah. The people’s displacement is a sign that God is up to something terrible and painful and important, and they put Jeremiah in jail for that message. …Even while Jerusalem is getting crushed, apparently they’re not too busy to turn on one of their own. …They’re not so defeated that they can’t throw Jeremiah in prison for sedition for daring to see God’s fingerprints on what is happening.
Now. None of us is likely to get thrown in the pokey for talking about NEXT— …though the “deviant” thing will need a bit of unpacking.
But we have to take what we’ve experienced here and do something with it. And after hearing Jeremiah 29 for the past three days, here in chapter 32 he shows us a bit of how it’s done, when he buys a field in a land that’s in the process of being conquered, when he puts money down on a contested space and says “I claim this field for the saving work of God.”
Jeremiah is enacting what we’ve been hearing all week. He doesn’t try to break out of jail; he doesn’t mount a defense so he can be released. He does what he’s capable of doing. Does the next right thing as God has seen fit to show it to him. And he does it right where he is.
He’s improvising. That’s a word we heard a lot last year in Charlotte and not as much this year, but improv has been lurking around quietly here in Minneapolis. The basic rule of improv is to yes-and. When something is offered to you, you receive it and you build on it.
And Jeremiah nails it. What he’s offered is pretty straightforward. Buy the field. Buy it for yourself. And he does. This is the yes.
But then comes the ‘and.’ Jeremiah knows that the field is not just for himself. He is a prophet and this is for everyone. So he builds on the situation. He yes-ands it. He takes this mundane real-estate transaction between family members and makes a big show of it. He weighs out the money. Twice. He signs the deed—and I am picturing a big ol’ John Hancock with swoops and flourishes. He seals it. He makes two copies. And he brings in witnesses—witnesses to sign the deed and witnesses to watch what he’s doing, “all the Judeans in the court of the guard.” And I have to wonder exactly how many people there really are milling around the palace jail, but Jeremiah makes it sound like a cast of thousands.
I mean, he doesn’t just buy that field. He buys the hell out of that field.
(Hey, sometimes the Texan’s gotta come out.)
This is not just private property, this is public prophetic action, and he pulls out all the stops! And then when he presents the paperwork to his secretary Baruch, in front of Hanamel and everybody, his instructions are clear: take good care of these documents. They need to last a long time, so put them in an—ahem—an earthenware jar.
Now this was standard procedure of the time, but I wonder if any of those people milling around the jail have been paying attention to Jeremiah, because if they had, they would have heard some words about pottery. Remember Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house recorded in chapter 18, when he says that God is like the potter, who takes a vessel that’s misshapen and defective and smashes it in her hands and starts over.
And just so the point is abundantly clear, the next chapter has Jeremiah, clutching a clay jug in a field littered with shards of broken pottery and smashing it to the ground and saying “That is the kind of destruction our God is capable of.”
So I don’t know if Jeremiah gives these instructions with a wink and a nod, or if he just lets the irony hang there. But if you’ve been listening to Jeremiah at all, you know that earthenware is the last thing you use if you want it to last.
Because pottery doesn’t last a second longer than the potter intends it to.
* * *
It’s encouraging to me that 5 of the 6 moderator and vice moderator candidates are here at NEXT, in this place of hope and creativity and renewal. And the theme for this year’s General Assembly is “abound in hope.” And I do. And I try to surround myself with people who are similarly hopeful.
And over the last couple of weeks, I have had more than one person ask me some version of this question:
Why would you volunteer to be on the bridge of the Titanic?
And here is what I say to that. The structural “thing” that is the PCUSA is changing, and maybe even ending as we currently recognize it. Churches will close. Maybe a lot of them will.
But when I look around, I don’t see the Titanic. I see Lord of the Rings.
There’s a scene in The Two Towers when the people of Rohan are beseiged, they’re outnumbered and outmatched, and they’ve retreated to the fortress of Helm’s Deep and they think they’re safe there but they’re not, the enemy has found them and is ready to bury them. And their king Theoden looks around and sees this ragtag group of people who are scared and ill-equipped for this battle and he urges them to be courageous and to fight with everything they have, and he says,
“If this is to be our end, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”
That’s what Jeremiah is doing. Jeremiah buys a field that he believes, and hopes, will be bursting with life and fruit someday. But his deed of purchase is in a piece of pottery, and that is a precarious container.
But even if he never makes it back to Anathoth, those documents are a witness to an eternal God who works through earthenware jars.
If there is to be an end to the PCUSA as we know it, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.
I serve a small congregation, full of good folks who are deeply committed to one another and the church. But we realized that over the years we had gotten complacent and insulated. We didn’t know our community. So for a year we launched an initiative called “Who is our neighbor?”, that great question from the Good Samaritan story. Each quarter we had a different emphasis: one quarter it was hunger and homelessness, another quarter was at-risk youth, another quarter was issues facing the elderly. And in each of those chunks of time we brought people in to talk to us, so we could learn, and we planned some kind of mission event, so we could serve.
And my thought was that over the course of the year we’d find that one thing that really animates us, that one issue to rally around that would energize the congregation and focus our mission, so we could be known as the church that does… [blank]. I expected us to figure out what our niche is.
And guess what? We didn’t. We came to the end of the year with no more focus than when we started.
But we did some things we never thought we’d do. And more important, we committed ourselves to responding to the opportunities that come to us, whether they fit some narrow vision statement or not. We don’t know what the future holds for us. We just know that we’re gonna love our neighbors indiscriminately for as long as we can.
We’re going to seek the welfare of the city. And we’re not just going to serve the world, we’re gonna serve the hell out of it. And I mean that in the Texan sense and in the literal sense.
Jim Kitchens said on Monday that some of us are standing in the rubble of what used to be. I submit that it’s not just rubble that’s around us, but shards of discarded pottery.
And Jeremiah is calling us, begging us, to pick up those shards and fashion something useful and hopeful out of them.
Pick up that bowl-shaped piece and pour living water into parched throats.
Glue those pieces together, even if they were never meant to fit that way, and fill them with the bread of life.
Take those sharp edges and cut the bonds of oppression, grind that hard clay into powder and paint a love letter to this world God adores,
String those pieces onto ribbons and make windchimes, so that the whole world may hear a joyful noise to the God of our salvation.
Do it all. Do it now. Do it without a five year plan for it. Do it badly if you have to. Do it… for as long as you have life and breath and shards to spare.
Thanks be to God.