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Real Estate and a Beggar (sermon)

September 25, 2010

Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15                     Luke 16: 19-31

This week I asked myself, how can you preach about serving God rather than money (like I did last week), if you are in the homeownership stakes, if you have a mortgage worth 3x the size of your total family income for the year?

Is it possible to own a home and serve God?

Or does a home mean you’re owned by the bank and have sold your soul to mammon?

These are hard questions.

But we need the scripture to challenge us and we need to support each other as we learn together what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus did not just teach (his point was not to talk of impossible ideals) he created a new community.

But as I asked myself these questions this last week I also read this week’s passage from Jeremiah… in which the prophet senses the word of the Lord saying to him “Buy a field at Anathoth”. He feels called to commit himself to Real Estate, to the land he is living in…

It is not a time of stable politics and economics. There is an army at the door about to invade. House prices look set to drop through the floor. Jeremiah buys property. He commits himself.

Jeremiah has the deed of purchase put in a jar and buried for a long time. He is committed to the long term. And our reading ends with this prophetic word from Yahweh: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (v 15)

Politics, global warming and the rising sea levels, earthquakes, all remind us that we can’t see very far into the immediate future. Panic threatens from all quarters. A call goes out for commitment over the long haul. The perspective is not realistic, but it is the perspective of Jews ever since the exile. God will bring peace in God’s own time. We live in accord with that, in expectation of that in the meantime, even if it takes us through a holocaust.

But what happens if we put our land-buying text alongside the parable of the rich man who dressed in fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day, while a poor man lay at his gate covered in sores?

This parable draws on elements of popular understandings of the afterlife without much comment. Hades, where the rich man ends up, is the name of the rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem. Lazarus, the poor man, is envisioned at the eschatological banquet at the end of history.

The truth of their lives is exposed… and we are told that the rich man and his friends will not even repent if something miraculous were to happen, such is their devotion to their wealth. Such is the power of mammon.

Here is the tension… buying a field, committing yourself in this place, this land, this community, financially and in all sorts of ways… but never forgetting the beggar at the door. In fact, to follow Jesus, means letting the beggar at the door define the very shape of our commitment to this place.

Jeremiah puts his point even more dramatically elsewhere:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; … But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.                                             from Jeremiah 29:5-7

We often read this passage as if it represented a kind of satisfaction with the status quo. But, as it has always been for Jews and Christians, it remains a word for those who are in exile, strangers…, waiting for God’s future kingdom. The city is in desperate need of something called welfare.

The call for those in exile is not a call to live in isolation. We cannot and should not live in isolation from the society we live in. Nor from the economic system we live in. We cannot avoid the ambiguity and tension that goes with living in a world of injustice.

And so as exiles we do buy houses, we do seek the welfare of the city, politically, socially, ecologically. In particular we seek to undermine the power of mammon over our city. What matters more than anything is our ability to see the beggars are our gate… internationally, locally. The beggars will be our salvation (I should say, the “occasion of our salvation”). That’s how Christ addresses us. How we address the beggars will define the welfare of the city.

We are in the middle of a local body election. Even for exiles who feel that local politics is as trapped as ever in the domination of mammon and the evil perpetuated by the principalities and powers which control our nation, even for exiles like us, I can’t see how we can feel other than called to vote. Seek the welfare of the city!

What vision of the welfare of the cities do the candidates offer us? How does their vision include the beggars at the gates, both locally and internationally?

Voting may not do much. It may not even be a big priority, but maybe it will provoke us to think further and act more concretely as a community-of-difference within a wider community, in ways that seek the welfare of the city?

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