Text: Jeremiah 32:1-3a. 9-15
About two weeks ago I joined several Pullen members attending a two-day conference with an interesting title: “Big Tent Christianity: Being and Becoming the Church.” It was a fascinating experience. This national conference held in North Raleigh was attended by people from all over the country and funded by the Ford Foundation. The planners said the reason for the event was to shine a light on the insanity of divisions within the American Christian church, with conservatives, evangelicals, Pentecostals, fundamentalists, moderates, liberals, and others all battling each other instead of following the example of the radical rabbi of the first century, Jesus of Nazareth. There were thirty-six speakers, many of them nationally known leaders from various corners of Christianity. Each was given ten minutes to speak on a topic like theology, the bible, denominationalism, justice, spirituality, and sexuality from a “big tent” perspective.
A number of the Big Tent speakers are involved in the Emerging Church, a movement that began in the late 20th century. According to speaker and sociologist Phyllis Tickle, this movement is actually the religious component of the Great Emergence, a worldwide wave of change currently taking place in economics, politics, and every aspect of life. This Emerging Church crosses a number of theological boundaries. Its proponents believe the movement transcends such modernist labels as “conservative” and “liberal.” They refer to it as a “conversation” in order to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of viewpoints, and its commitment to dialogue. Participants in the Emerging Church seek to live their faith in a postmodern society. What those involved in the conversation mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for new ways of doing worship, missions, evangelism, and Christian community.
Although not all of the Emerging Church proponents are young, a large percentage of them are younger adults who want to follow Jesus in a way that is different from what they see in typical churches today. For example, social networking was a big part of the Big Tent conference. As soon as the speakers began offering their ideas, people were interacting with each other by blogging and tweeting furiously on their laptops and phones. The stage, which was the chancel area of our host New Community Church, was filled with sofas and overstuffed chairs where conference participants were invited to sit. You could also sit down on the floor, which doubles as a basketball court, in rows of chairs or at round tables, whichever you preferred. Like I said, it was a fascinating experience.
But what does spending two days under the Big Tent have to do with an old prophet who bought a piece of real estate more than twenty-five hundred years ago? Let me explain.
As our text begins, the Babylonian army is attacking the city and Jeremiah is in prison. King Zedekiah and his subjects know it’s only a matter of time before the Babylonians enter Jerusalem and take control.
You heard Ani read the details of the story. While the prophet is in prison, God tells him that his cousin Hanamel is going to offer to sell him some land in his hometown of Anathoth. Then that’s exactly what happens. Although we don’t know how he manages to get in, Hanamel visits Jeremiah in prison and offers to sell him some real estate back home. This is just what God had predicted, so Jeremiah is convinced that the directive to buy was indeed from God and not a prison-induced delirium. Most likely Jeremiah himself thought it was a pretty weird idea—buying land when the enemy is at the gate. But God said do it so he does it. We get all the specifics of his paying the purchase price in front of witnesses and in public, and then preserving the deed so it can be found later. As one commentator describes it, he paid real money for worthless land in front of an audience. Why? Because this act was a symbol of God’s intention to provide a future for the Israelites beyond their present predicament. As verse 15 says, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” In other words, this is not the end for the Hebrew people. Jeremiah’s purchase of property is a down payment on the future, a bet that God’s promise of something better to come after the fall of Jerusalem would be kept. So Jeremiah put his money where his trust was. By doing it in a very public way for all to see, he gave witness to his trust in the future and in God.
What I want to suggest to you this morning is that the conversation about Big Tent Christianity and the Emerging Church addresses the same thing as this land purchase by the prophet Jeremiah. They are both about the future. Today young (and some not so young) people are asking hard, good questions about the church, just as some “emerging” former evangelicals are looking for a more open church. At the same time, we read about a prophet twenty-five centuries ago who trusted God enough to invest in the future. Don’t ever believe it when people tell you the bible is an old, dead book that doesn’t speak to the issues of the day. This morning Jeremiah joins the people under the Big Tent to ask us: Where is Pullen Church going in the months and years and decades to come? Do we trust that God has a good future in store for us and how do we embody that trust?
As I’ve pondered these questions, I’ve been thinking about the decisions that lie before us now and in the near future. How should we staff our church, its mission and ministries? Can we garner the financial resources we need to support what we feel called to do? And can we do it without as much anxiety as we’ve experienced about money in the past? Should we add visual art to this space that will draw us beyond the beloved, but ancient and very male images we see each Sunday to something new—something rich and evocative and deeply spiritual that speaks to each soul in a different way? Do we try as a church to do too much and spread ourselves too thin? How will we keep our distinct identity and still foster deeper understanding of people of other faiths? How will we relate to these post-evangelicals who are finding life in the open, more progressive view of faith that has been the hallmark of this church for many decades? How can we stand boldly for justice without demonizing those who don’t agree with us? How can we reconcile with one another when we disagree? We are not unanimous at Pullen in our support for things like getting arrested or reading the Koran. So how can we be a reconciling presence both within and beyond our walls? In large measure, the decisions we make today will determine who we will be, what Pullen Church will be when our great-great grandchildren sit in these pews. Actually, I think they will be sitting in something other than pews by then—maybe even sofas—but you get my point.
Let me say clearly that I could not begin to fully answer these questions for myself right now, much less for the church. But I can say that the Big Tent speakers nudged me to ponder two questions that seem important for us as we tackle these upcoming decisions. The first one is this: What of our tradition will we take with us into the future?
Phyllis Tickle, the sociologist, intrigued me when she said, “Tradition lives by giving itself away.” Tradition lives by giving itself away. What does that mean? In fact, what is our tradition? Is it what is Christian? What is Baptist? Or what is Pullenish? Is it the way we do things: like how we worship or gather on Wednesday nights for dinner or nurture partnerships with people in other countries? Are these actions our tradition? Or is our tradition the values we hold, and are these activities merely expressions of our values that we have chosen for today? As I noted earlier, Phyllis Tickle talked about this global Great Emergence and that it will change how Christianity is practiced in the years to come. So how do we figure out whether what we are currently doing is an essential practice to take into the future or simply an expression of this group of people at this time that should evolve and change as the years pass? Will we take the best of our tradition into the future, or maybe the worst? Tickle argued that Martin Luther took some of the worst of the Catholic Church with him into the Reformation, one of those being a virulent anti-Semitism. So, are we carrying our best forward?
Drew Dellinger, the author of the poem Corbin read a few minutes ago, says in another poem: “Our ancestors brought us here and they expect good things.” We have inherited the legacy of John Pullen and McNeill Poteat and Bill Finlator and Mahan Siler and all the women who led this church but couldn’t be the pastor in their day. They have given us good things and they expect good things…but what things?
Shane Claiborne is a skinny white guy with dreadlocks who is well-known in evangelical circles. He’s part of the New Monastics, a group of young people who take both spiritual practice and justice very seriously. At the conference, he made another point about our tradition worth mentioning this morning. He offered this: Disciplining our desires is what the Southern Baptists taught us. We may not have liked it, but we will need it as we deal with consumerism. We have to be able to say, “This looks like fun but we won’t do it.”
Now I know that many here have felt oppressed by constant reminders from the church to discipline our desires, especially those in the LGBT community. But Shane does have a point. Following the way of Jesus, if that’s what we want to do, requires a lot of self-control. Our culture teaches us to be consumers in all aspects of our lives, even a consumer of the church. But consumerism doesn’t build caring community and it is killing us. It is also killing people in the developing world and the planet. So maybe we need to re-think what parts of our tradition we should leave behind. I cherish a number of things I learned in the Southern Baptist church of my childhood and I’ve heard a number of you say the same thing. And that may be true for those of you who grew up in a church that was something other than Baptist. Shane encourages us to unpack our baggage from those days so we can discern what we still need and what we truly should leave behind.
The second question wandering around in my head these days was raised by Bill Leonard, former Dean of Wake Forest Divinity School. He asked boldly: What will be our witness to the world? Just because Pullen has what some consider a strong witness on some values and issues today, it won’t continue to be that way unless we work at it. Today it may be issues around schools, ministry with persons who are homeless, care of creation, and our support for our Muslim neighbors, among others. But what else is calling us? Some say we are already involved in too many issues and projects. I hear that concern. Perhaps both staff and members are spread too thin as Dave Odom, our staffing consultant, suggested. Perhaps we need to stop doing some things we are currently doing. But maybe there are seats for us at other tables. In November the Peace and Justice Mission Group will offer an after-worship lunch and presentation on immigration. Is there a seat for us at that table? If so, would you be willing to occupy that chair for us? Our neighbors from the South who have come to this country to find a decent life are just as despised as followers of Islam are in some quarters. What does our welcome to them look like? Should work for a just immigration policy be part of our collective witness?
Because of the nature of our current stance on some issues, this church has made some enemies along the way. Sometimes we hold that as a badge of honor. Brian McLaren suggested at the conference that you don’t get a chance to love your enemies unless you have them. But he reminds us that even as we confront the powers and principalities, we are still called to learn to love them. I don’t know about you, but every time I turn on the news these days, I see many people who I find pretty unlovable. And it’s going to get worse as we get closer to the November elections. So how can we take a stand for justice as we have discerned it and love those who disagree with us at the same time? Luckily, there is help out there for us. Dan Buttry is a global peace consultant with American Baptist International Ministries who visited us some months ago. He will be back in February to lead a workshop on “conflict transformation.” It’s called “Peacemaking for Life.” I hope many of you will choose to participate as we learn skills for becoming better lovers of our enemies. For if we choose to continue a radical witness of inclusion and justice, those who disagree with us will be like the poor—always with us. And in the process, we might even learn how to better love one another.
About now you may be feeling like you’ve been reading the book of Job. That’s where the good man Job is afflicted with tremendous loss of family and health, and his friends try to tell him what he must have done to deserve it. Job knows he’s been a righteous man so he challenges God. God’s response comes back in the form of dozens and dozens of questions, the first one being: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Now I don’t profess to believe that the questions I have raised this morning are as profound as that one. Yet I do think they are important for us to consider as we make decisions and envision the future we want to create for ourselves and our world.
As Jeremiah sat in prison, the Babylonians were about to overtake the city of Jerusalem. He didn’t know that his people were about to be sent into exile in Babylon for fifty years, but things must have looked pretty bleak. Yet surrounded by chaos and despair, Jeremiah listened to a word from the Lord meant especially for him and acted on it. He did so not because of a sudden flash of insight or an unusual spiritual experience. He bought the land he was told to buy because he had a history with God. He had listened to words from the Lord before and knew they could be trusted.
Today we are surrounded by challenges to the values we hold dear. Ours is not a just nation nor do we live in a just world. This situation isn’t new. But in our public discourse on hot-button issues today, compassion—even civility—seem to be in especially short supply. Over the years Pullen people have listened for their “word from God” and found ways to hang onto the best of our tradition. But younger generations and the times themselves are asking new questions that call for new answers. Some of those answers might be found under the Big Tent. Others may not. But whatever it takes, our task is to discern what our witness should be in the days and years to come. This discernment requires trust—a Jeremiah kind of trust. We can’t do this on our own. We have to do our best and then trust the Spirit to use it for good. Because if we’re going to keep making a difference in the world, trust is crucial. For ourselves. For our planet. And for our great-great grandchildren.