This Lenten season I feel like every sermon has begun with a story about a visit I shared with someone at a coffee shop. So not to disappoint you…here we go again. In another city, at another time, I met a man who had attended the church I served for some time. I was seeking advice on our very small front lawn. This man was a life-long landscaper and he shared his insight and made some suggestions. Before we got down to business he wanted to know more about me. He had already surveyed the lawn and was anxious to know my values and my vision for the property.
I explained that was minimalist and liked the landscape around me to be simple with a little bit of colour at the edges. He shared with me what the landscape had looked like generations ago, before Europeans had arrived on the continent. He suggested we include more indigenous plant life and asked if I had a preference, he showed photos of what trees, bushes, grass and plants that had surrounded the area many generations ago. It did not take long to develop a plan and my friend was eager to get to work. He explained, “I started my own business so I could develop a relationship with the people I worked for, that together we could find ways to honour the earth.”
This man had been brought up in the landscaping business. His forbearers were all in the same business, it was the only life he knew. This was a deeply devoted Christian and saw his work as a vocation, his task to honour the covenant God had made with us. He had left the family business when it had become more a technique, the customer telling his family what they had seen in a magazine, on television, on an exotic vacation, and then hunting down sources of these plant forms to install on residential property. My friend was not feeling this was a vocation any longer, he felt no kinship with the homeowner, and he felt the legacy of the earth that had been carefully maintained for generations was now largely distained.
Now he loved his business, he took his time to research the indigenous plant life and the values of the homeowner. There was no sense to recreate a landscape created on a computer screen, no keeping up with the Joneses. My friend told me that he believed he had found his ministry. But at the age of 60 he also knew his days of hard physical labour were numbered and he knew he and his wife needed to think about retirement. On a hiking trip in the northern part of their province he and his wife had come across an empty field. It was filled with blue birch trees. My friend immediately felt a connection. He and his wife bought the empty field, their intention was to build a small home there, where they would spend their retirement years. When I left that church my friend made a walking stick for me out of one of those blue birches.
Sometimes when things seem bleak, when our resources are diminishing, when the world around us seems hell-bent on going in a direction that is not life-giving and as distant as humanly possible from the way God intended us to be we need to take stock and invest in the future.
To do all that we need God’s gift of imagination. The gift of imagination can help us negotiate reality and to envision a future that focuses on the future. Our text for today, Jeremiah 31:31-34 follows a tough tale of one peoples overcoming and dominating another peoples, the Babylonians invading and then exiling the people of Jerusalem. In early chapters of this famous book of prophecy Jeremiah has promised doom and gloom for his people and in return has been ridiculed, mistreated and thrown in jail. But as mentioned the prediction turned out to be true and now the people who once derided Jeremiah as a kook and a traitor are facing up to their new reality of exile. It was Jeremiah’s imagination that inspired his peoples.
In Jeremiah 29:4-7 the prophet has words of encouragement and hope for his people, he tells them to “build houses…plant gardens…take wives…Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah then goes out and buys a field from his cousin Hanamel (Jeremiah 32:9). Preacher and scholar and church leader William Willimon says of this text, “God will not return to recreate their past. The past is past. Instead, Jeremiah helps the people to recognize that the only true reality is the one they live in now—in Babylon.” It’s time to move on with what reality has placed in front of us.
But the covenant continues, the covenant sealed in Creation, in the sky after the flood, by Moses with his tablets, this promise “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” remains constant. When I ponder the covenants of Jesus’ heritage there are some common themes that emerge. We are on journey with God as our constant companion. We are not alone. Further, we are to find this “Other” in the other and thus as we love and live with our neighbor we deepen our experience of God and God’s purpose. And finally, we will fall. As surely as we breathe the air God gave us we will surely stumble, go in the wrong direction, sin. It is our human DNA. But just as surely as this fall is the hope of redemption, that God can show us the way forward, a “re-orientation”, where the covenant is made clear by our new wisdom and humility.
My friend found that his world had become increasingly commercialized and devoid of purpose and connection. He did his best to resist and offer a different path. He loved it. I believe God put a covenant on his heart to do what he did. In the end, when his energy ran low and age was taking its toll he needed to make a decision about the future. My friend bought an empty field. A field filled with blue birch and ruddy coloured grass, a place where my friend could find a home and rest and breathe in his remaining years.
My friends, where will we make our home? What empty fields will we purchase to demonstrate our faith in a future God is making clear? In this year, 2018, we have retained the Bethany covenant of care, we are remaining friendly, caring and supportive to one another. But we are also building new fields of play in our Congregational Care working group, our Walk and Talk Wednesdays, our connections with ISANS, our community meals, all of which harness our old covenant of congregational care and add to it a more outwardly looking community focus. We are buying empty fields. And God’s covenant is made real. Amen.