handsdirt1.jpg26 August 2007
First Baptist Church of Exeter

To Pluck and to Plant


A few years back in our neighborhood, another family of about our own age was faced with a difficult decision. The home where they lived, roughly 1 tenth of a mile from us, had been part of Joe’s family for generations, and now he was married with a small child. But the house itself, while a much-loved part of his family’s memory and heritage, was in a really bad state. It was decaying and rotting, sinking in places, with bulging sidewalls and sagging roof, poor and dangerous electrical system, and contaminated water pipes. Entire rooms were without heat and unusable.

It would have been so easy for him to try to convince himself that he could just patch a few things here, replace a few wires there, buy some electric space heaters, and so on, and the place would be as good as new, just like it used to be, just like it had always been, just like it was in his memory from when he was a child. But the reality was that the house would never be able to survive extensive gutting, and it was not in the least a cost effective solution. And so Joe and his wife made a very painful decision; to raze their ancestral home to the ground, and build a new one for their new and future life in that place.

The prophet Jeremiah could relate to Joe’s decision to tear down and destroy an old and decrepit structure like his house in order to plant and to build a new one. Only in the prophet’s case, he was summoned by God not to pluck up actual buildings and trees and so on, but the ancestral structures of order and conventional wisdoms of his day that his people loved and cherished and believed would be their salvation and protection against a very uncertain immediate future. You see, Jeremiah’s call was to look his people and his community in the eye and unflinchingly challenge the conventional wisdom of the leading political and religious authorities of the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE. During these days, the mighty Assyrian empire was in its final years, and the international power scene was shifting in the favor of the mighty Babylonian Empire. The King of Jerusalem and his advisors remembered that formerly Assyria was unable to capture the Holy City of Jerusalem, and they attributed this failure to their belief that God was on their side (as he was apparently not, some hundred and thirty years earlier, on the side of Israel and Samaria, which was captured by Assyria as punishment for failing to adhere to the Law of Moses and for setting up houses of worship outside of the “official” House of Jerusalem). The Temple of the Lord protected us once, and it will do so again! Babylon will never overtake us, and the Lord of Hosts will fight for those who know that God is on their side. We adhere to the Law of Moses; we are the heirs to the throne of David; we worship the right way and in the right place. Babylon will break upon the walls of Jerusalem like water on a rock!

But the entire book of Jeremiah is a prophetic witness against this exact attitude. The prophet warns his people, whom he dearly loves, that Judah’s and Jerusalem’s shortcomings and infidelity to the Lord are now too great, and that no amount of right worship, no force of “legitimacy” to the throne of David, God’s own anointed, no claims to the right and only Temple/Church or ability to do all the right things and obey all the right laws and keep the right morality or thinking the right way will be enough to stem the tide of God’s justice and newness, for which he is now using Babylon as his agent of power. Jeremiah’s message is “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, and to build and to plant.” It is a message specifically to “our people,” the people whom I love, who claim to be on God’s side, who think that “our” way is “God’s way.” But Jeremiah warns that our interest in doing thing’s “God’s way” may in fact really be getting “in God’s way!” Numerous times Jeremiah pleaded with the people and with the religious leaders and political authorities to stop putting their faith in the Temple (Church?), the Law, (morality?) the office of the King (president?) and turn and repent. But he fails repeatedly. And so when it is too late, Jeremiah counsels the leaders not to resist, but to stay in the Land or to go to Babylon as God exerts his justice on the people. But the leaders and the people refuse even this, and continue to believe that if they kept doing Temple/Church and listen to their spiritual talking heads and political leaders (evangelical leaders?) God will see our godliness even in our distress and we’ll be OK.

Jeremiah’s message is a painful one, and his summons and call to be a prophetic witness to God’s work in the world is devastatingly difficult. And indeed, he doesn’t want to do it! Despite his initial (and continuous) protests, Jeremiah ultimately cannot resist his calling to speak to his people, to call them out as part of his work of plucking up and pulling down, of destroying and overthrowing, the conventional wisdoms and accepted beliefs and practices of the community his is part of and of its political and religious leadership: Believing that our Church and our Evangelical or Liberal heritage, morality, practices, and so forth, and our God-ordained political leadership will protect us, and, when that fails, to flee and avoid all responsibility, is “God’s way” for us.

Having done his job (and mostly failing at it), Jeremiah returns home, but his actions symbolize the aspect of his calling that was yet-to-come, and which, in fact, he never saw the fruits of during his lifetime. Later on in the book we find Jeremiah, having given his messages, on his small farm, planting and sowing for himself, and for the future of Israel. In the words of the poet Wendell Berry, Jeremiah, in the face of catastrophe, stood in his field / sowing clover.

Lest we become over depressed at this state of affairs, let us turn to the Gospel, the good news; surely the work of Jesus has something more cheerful to hear and experience than the prophetic witness of Jeremiah? Alas, this is not the case, and indeed, Jesus’ own prophetic witness is much the same as the embattled prophet from 600 years before! Like Jeremiah, Jesus’ actions in this incident in Luke is as much a challenge to “the establishment” as Jeremiah’s was, only with a far more dramatic – and physical! — element. Healing was the prerogative of God, and only those who were “legitimately” plugged into God, via proper interpretation of the law, following the morals of the local religious leaders, attending synagogue and “playing by God’s rules” while they were there, and going to the “right” house of worship, and so forth. And what healing did was not simply to restore a person’s physical well-being, but to restore him or her in “our people” even when those who claim to be the final arbiters of that position declare otherwise. Our Lord had no patience for people who screwed over those who were disadvantaged, different, “unclean,” or who thought different from us, who were “liberal” or “conservative” or “postmodern” or who “we” had marked as being outside of “us,” who had to conform to “our” rules in order to regulate who has access to the Lord!

The ruler of the synagogue in this passage, probably a Pharisee, was more concerned about upholding the letter of the Sabbath Law than he was about the pain and plight of the woman. After all, how could Messiah ever come if the people of Israel were flagrantly violating the Law like this upstart country bumpkin Jesus? Enough of this! Messiah is never going to come unless all the people stop sinning, so you, Jesus, knock it off and let the real religious people handle this kind of stuff. Jesus’ response is a stinging rebuke, and of course the Gospel tells us that the Messiah is already here! The blind see, and the lame walk, and the dead rise! And if your godly piety gets in the way of prophetic witness to the kingdom of God and God’s new and present action on earth, then you, whoever you are, are on the side of the enemy.

The witness of Jeremiah and the ministry of Jesus both testify to the presence of the Kingdom of God among us, a presence that will not be hemmed in by our orthodoxies and prevailing wisdoms of the day. But more than that, the Kingdom breaks in; it tears down and destroys; it plucks up and pulls down, and above all, it builds and plants.

Our challenge as Christians and as citizens of the kingdom of God is to live in imitation of Christ, as Thomas a Kempis says, and in prophetic witness to the work of God and the Kingdom as both Jesus and Jeremiah did. Our challenge is to look our piety, our conventional wisdom in the eye and see whether it is really God’s Way, or whether it is In His Way. We are summoned, as Jeremiah was summoned, to be a prophetic witness. And today, there are may evangelicals and progressives and other Christians who are bucking the conventional wisdom of “their people” to be that witness; people like Richard Cizik in his Kingdom work of promoting environmental concerns in the churches. Men like Greg Boyd, who challenges the church to look beyond the old issues of morality in trying to promote an authentic Christian ethic of life; or Tony Campolo, who has been tirelessly working to dismantle categories of “conservative” and “liberal;” or Brian McLaren, who work to challenge the way evangelicals think of our modern world and help build bridges to the postmodern era; or Jim Wallis, who seeks to engage evangelicals in the political issues in ways that are not wedded to one particular party. Others could be named; but these are examples of contemporary evangelical leaders who are acting as prophetic witnesses by taking long, seriously hard looks at our stock answers to the world as we see it today.

My neighbor Joe was faced with the difficult job of plucking up his home in order to allow the seeds of a new life be planted. May we, like Jeremiah and Jesus, not be afraid to answer the difficult summons to pluck up … and to plant.