BLESSED BY OUR PAST - HOPE FOR OUR FUTURE
Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15
DECEMBER 5, 2004
The Second Sunday in Advent
150th Anniversary Sunday
a sermon preached
the Rev. Maxwell Vines
First Baptist Church of Oakland
Telegraph Avenue at 22nd Street, Oakland, California
There is something peculiar about the Christian faith, when it is looked at in the context of other world religions. By peculiar I don’t mean funny or weird; I mean distinctive. Each faith has particular characteristics and a distinguishing mark of the Christian faith is that it regards history with great seriousness. The biblical story of the people of God is deeply rooted in its many stories, which make up the larger history. The story of Noah tells how God rescues those who trust in him. The story of Moses and the Exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt was the great formative event in the life of these people. The memory of this great deliverance became a sustaining hope for their future. “Remember, remember, O Israel: you were in bondage in Egypt and the Lord your God delivered you” was the recurring prophetic reminder. Even after the later humiliating exile in Babylon they found and embraced new opportunities to rebuild a future.
Oakland First Baptist Church has a past which is rich in ministry and service. We are proud of our past. So we should be, but we can’t live there. From the founding of the church 150 years ago by a handful of visionaries, through two world wars and several others, in the sending forth of more than 100 people to become ministers and missionaries, through ministries with incoming Asian people and the resettlement of refugees from Europe and Latin America, as well as Asia, through adaptation to a changing inner city, the massive loss of members to new suburbs and their churches, in ecumenical cooperation for two decades with the Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales - these make up our past which has been indeed blessed of God. But now we ask questions about the future. Many other congregations ask similar questions in a changing culture which sees a malaise in churches of our kind and on the other hand a surging of church lifestyles which we hardly approve, congregations modelling themselves on the pattern of the world with its exclusions and its power-plays and pursuit of success rather than what we Baptists have regarded as primary, modelling ourselves on biblical freedom, with a place for all in a servant church.
The real issue, cutting through all the defensiveness and denial which we are so good at, is simply this. We want to have hope for the future, but we want to be sure that the future of the church will be in the hands of people like ourselves or those who will do everything the way we think it should be done. It is hard to realize that it isn’t likely to be that way. That is difficult to work through. We need to really believe what we’ve always professed, namely that it is God’s church before it is ours, and we are to trust God about the outcome.
Last year I was given an anthology of sermons by Jitsuo Morikawa, that American Baptist of “prophetic mind and poetic spirit”, edited by our own Paul Nagano and William Malcomson. In a sermon preached in 1977, Jitsuo referred to his impressionable and formative years being lived as one of the poor and the weak (he was a Japanese American, interned during world War II) belonging as he said to that social stratum that society regarded with pity. He went on to say -
Don’t let the poor, the weak and the undesirable fool you; they are not as poor as you think. They are not as weak as you think. They are not as pitiful as you think. They may, in fact, possess disarming strength, surprising powers, unsuspected character, so that we can be confused to know who are the weak and who are the strong, who are the truly rich and who are in fact impoverished. The Bible is confusing: it says the first shall be last and the last shall be first. But let’s not romanticize the poor; the poor can be just as sinful as the rich, as brutal as the strong, as arrogant as the powerful.
Every community is full of such people, not regarded as good prospects; but the church with foresight that goes to these people in their social inferiority and misfortune of unemployment, poverty, housing disrepair, will be mobilizing and recruiting manpower and woman power for God and society for the future of your community and the nation for years to come.
As we look at the future, what does losing a bit of middle-class respectability and decorum matter, in the long haul, if God’s purposes are served and otherwise forgotten people are brought into contact with Jesus Christ? This would be the same tune with variations as has played out in so much of that past which we say is blessed. Embracing such change can bring enrichment and grace to otherwise graceless and powerless lives in the larger community. Has it occurred to us that the future of this church may indeed be with the poor and the weak, or at least the different, who may not be able at first to provide total financial upkeep: the marginalized and the immigrant whom we may be called to help empower in a culture which either excludes them or makes it incredibly hard for them to participate with acceptance.
That bothers us, doesn’t it? And that’s natural enough, but then we talk about how God has guided us to solve problems in the past, and this may be a problem which can get solved in stages, and which doesn’t have to be all typed and filed and photocopied in advance.
We may say this is all very well, but is there hope for the future? How are we to behave? What does God want of us?What are we to do?
Let us return to the incident we read about in the book of Jeremiah. He was struggling with despair. There wasn’t much hope. His little nation was threatened by the rising power in the East which was steadily dominating the world. The threat was there; it was only a matter of time before the end might come. The political situation was unstable. The leaders vacillated. They looked now to one political coalition and then another to save them. Internally, the social situation was far from ideal. The prophets appealed to the people to practise justice for people in the community. Jeremiah found himself in the minority, indeed the one spokesman who seemed to care about what the divine wisdom and compassion might require at such a time.
Yet almost imperceptibly things changed. How faith and confidence are renewed at such a time is not easy to grasp. At some point, and we cannot be sure just when it was, Jeremiah began to see that the coming distress was notgoing to be the end. This is why we can see him as a prophet of hope, even though the general cast of his personality and his style is that of a very serious prophet, a man of sorrow. There is a turning point for Jeremiah and this makes it possible for there to be a turning point for the people. What do we have here? We have the city of Jerusalem and a little constellation of villages clustered around it, in an area about the same size as the Bay Area. This small kingdom is about to be engulfed by a larger, powerful invader. Political advisers, supported by a few of the so-called prophets of the day, are anxious to make some agreement with others in order to resist the invaders. Jeremiah counselled rather that they should accept invasion (as judgement), and go with the flow! He was misunderstood, called a traitor, and made to suffer for his theological honesty. He was arrested while leaving the city, and accused of defecting to the enemy.
In such a troubled situation very few people would be eager to invest in real estate. The kingdom is about to fall and Jeremiah is going up-country to buy land. The world is crumbling around him so he goes out and buys a farm!Somewhere in this process it came to Jeremiah that what he was doing carried far more meaning than buying a piece of land. His action now becomes the everyday symbol, the prophetic sign, the affirmation of continuity, the word needed to say something new about the providence of God. Beyond the impending tragedy, normal life would someday be resumed again. Remember, God is with you: there is a relationship between memory and hope.
So in times of distress or discouragement, or just plain uncertainty, the word of God through Jeremiah may speak to us with unexpected power. Remember, it is the God of judgement and righteousness, the God of justice, who is also the God of grace, and who will not permit his people to be finally obliterated, but will open to them another oppor-tunity to find the right paths again, and to walk in them. This future may not be as expected but it will be God’s gift. When the hour is dark and hope seems absent, then it is that God’s presence and grace become real in the assurance that there is going to be a worthwhile future.
In her splendid book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan Chittister reminds us that our memories are the seedbed of our hope. She says: “Hope rides on the decision either to believe that God stands on this dark road waiting to walk with us towards new light again or to despair of the fact that God who is faithful is eternally faithful and will sustain us in our darkness one more time.” We may well ask: Isn’t this the recurring message of Advent after all?
There is always a future, as long as God is, and God always is!