25th September 2016 - Hugh Perry
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The setting in today’s reading from Jeremiah is the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in which Jeremiah is imprisoned for saying that the Babylonians will capture the city.
Now in today’s reading Jeremiah expresses hope for the future by buying a piece of land and so indicates that this time of siege will pass and, as always, hope will be fulfilled through land. 
It is perhaps also a message of hope for people in Christchurch where there are already signs of rebuilding reminding us that things will return to normal and businesses will continue. However where land has been torn apart and now needs more expensive foundations the value of land has dropped in proportion, but Jeremiah’s message is that even that land will find a new normal as pressure for sections grows.
Following last week’s parable of the dishonest manager the reader is told that: ‘The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this and ridiculed him.’ Therefore we can understand this parable as a warning to the Pharisees and those who behave like Pharisees.
In his commentary Earl Ellis notes that the theme was well known but suggests that Jesus used a well known story to make a particular point. The general theme of the parable is well known and there is a sense that this is a true to life story but not a true after-life story.
Our question however is not is this is an original Jesus story but what was Jesus’ point in telling the story regardless of where it came from.
Bill Loader suggests that the story challenges people to seek firsthand experience of encountering real people in poverty. We will then not be able to dismiss the poor and the homeless as relative statistics. 
I have always liked the vision of Jeremiah buying a field when his kinsman is obviously so keen to sell because a powerful army was advancing to lay siege to Jerusalem. For Jeremiah’s cousin this was the end of life as he knew it. Therefore he was keen to turn his investment in land into something much more portable and become a cashed up refugee. People are doing exactly that in Syria and other parts of the world. People smugglers are circling like vultures to offer unattainable hope in exchange for whatever cash the refugees have been able to assemble.
In the face of impending doom Jeremiah buys the land and so acts out a prophesy of amazing hope in the face of impending doom.
The prophet so often associated with doom looked to the future when all things would be restored to their proper place. In so doing he not only offered hope to his generation but proclaimed hope to generations to come. Jeremiah’s message was, and still is, that humanity is extremely resilient. No matter what calamity we bring on ourselves, or have inflicted upon us by extreme natural events, humanity will endure because God is always God.
Faced with calamity it is very easy to panic and see that panic as being rational. The organised church in this country is facing the very real possibility of annihilation through apathy. The church hierocracy has reacted by retrenching and cashing up our assets like Jeremiah’s cousin. Also like Jeremiah’s cousin I suspect there is no real plan of how those cashed up assets will benefit the church of the future. There are vague ideas of setting up funds to support new mission initiatives and support growth in so called successful churches. However the great missionary moments in the past have been based on taking the gospel message to the poor Lazarus at the gate not the rich man in purple who feasts sumptuously. John Wesley preached to thousands in the open, not in a specially designed auditorium.
We at St. Albans Uniting can take a bow because although we had our own long drawn out period of rationalisation, once we settled here we not only held onto our field, we built this building on it.
We agonised about the future and finally decided that, although there was a possibility that our church my not survive in the future, by not rebuilding and not accepting our call to mission we would in fact guarantee our demise.
Like Jeremiah we have no idea what the future holds but we have the faith to answer our calling to be Christ to others in this community and let God be God.
After our first earthquake there was a sizable exodus of people desperate to leave Christchurch. For them all hope was lost and they wanted to rebuild their lives somewhere else. They cashed up their insurance, sold their land or damaged buildings and left. Some went to Australia but others went to other parts of New Zealand, even Wellington.
My thoughts at the time was that there was very little point in going somewhere else in New Zealand because, up until that first earthquake, Christchurch was regarded as having the least likely earthquake risk.
I remembered my Dad’s stories of a massive earthquake near Wellington and on reflection I realised that growing up in the Wellington region the regular earthquakes we experienced were probably aftershocks from that event Dad described.
Moving our memorabilia around to cope with repairs I came across the picture of my grandfather standing by his car where the road in front of him had completely dropped away. That was the Murchison earthquake which occurred at 10.17am on the 17th of June 1929. It greatly added to my Grandfathers stories of humour and heroism from his time as a commercial traveller on the West Coast. Among other things the Murchison earthquake created the Maruia Falls by triggering a landslide which diverted the course of the Maruia River westwards, forcing it to cut a new channel over an old river bank. The river subsequently eroded gravels below the bank, forming the Maruia Falls.
Eventually there will be a new and better Christchurch and although we will not all see it, we will all have been part of the adventure that created it. Our earthquake recovery grinds forward inspired by those who followed Jeremiah’s vision of hope and retained property or purchased property. Unfortunately some of the slow moving central planning is being shamed by the example of Napier’s earthquake recovery.
That is because after the Napier earthquake the compassion of the whole nation united to rebuild the city. In so doing they provided a unique contribution to New Zealand’s architecture which endures to this day.
Perhaps the difference was that in 1931 the false idols of the free market were not worshiped with the enthusiasm they are today. There was still a vision of a just society. In the building of a new nation in the South Pacific the refugees from colonial Britain were not prepared to leave poor Lazarus at the gate. A devastating earthquake was not just an unfortunate setback, it was also a chance for everyone to muck in and get it sorted.
The Jesus Seminar expresses doubt that this story of Lazarus is an original Jesus parable because folk tales where the fortunes of life are reversed in death were well known in the ancient near east.
It certainly is a wish in most cultures that those who exploit others will get their comeuppance, if not in this life at least in the next world. Furthermore those who toil endlessly with no reward often have an earnest desire to be vindicated and rewarded for their loyalty.
It is also quite normal for story tellers to retell and adapt existing stories. One of the things that I enjoyed about Biblical studies was tracing the treads through different biblical stories and then back even further though the folk tales of other cultures. So it is quite understandable that Jesus reused an existing story to make a point. The story is not explaining the landscape of the afterlife. The images used were well known and reflect the hopes of judgment and reward in many cultures. I suspect that even atheists secretly hope those who prosper at their expense get a hard time in the next life they don’t believe in.
Bill loader brings the issues into stark reality when he writes that this parable targets the violence of apathy and neglect which widens the chasm between rich and poor.
That chasm was very real in Jesus’ time and the image of the story makes it real when Abraham says that he cannot give the rich man a drink because: ‘Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ (Luke 16: 26)
Such a chasm in the geography of the afterlife is pure imaginative speculation. But the imagery draws attention to the chasm between the very rich and the very poor in our world. That is at least a chasm in mindsets that is almost impossible to bridge or cross.
Duncan Garner uses exactly that imagery when he writes in the online newspaper Stuff on the second of July this year under the heading: ‘Mind the gap - the growing gulf between rich and poor in this country.’
He goes on to write:
The richest 10 per cent now own 60 per cent of the wealth in New Zealand. The bottom 40 per cent scrape by with just 3 per cent of the wealth.
They're basically living in poverty, hand-to-mouth, week-to-week - if they're lucky. They don't have assets.
So what did we hear from the Government? Concern? Worry?
Not really. They agreed with it - in a dismissive and slightly argumentative tone. So what? Nothing we can do about it.
That’s what Loader refers to as violence of apathy and neglect which widens the chasm between rich and poor. What’s needed, Loader suggests, is some firsthand experience of real people who live in the extremes and it is that sort of alongside empathy that Jesus is encouraging by telling the story.
If we cannot experience the extremes of poverty first hand then this story of Lazarus and the rich man will set us on the path of active imagination that visualises what it really means to be poor.
This story will help us visualise what it means to be a refugee, to be caught on the wrong side of the chasms which both vested interests and dulled imagination maintains
Loader also points out that the parable also challenges the reactionary moralism that automatically condemns and seeks violence against even the deserving rich. Lazarus had a miserable life and the rich man had a miserable after-life. God’s Grace and the mission of Christ draws them both in to the possibility of loving transformation.
We need, as Loader suggests, a bigger transformation than the parable inspires. We need to bridge the metaphoric gulf that Duncan Garner writes of and inspire others by our willingness to purchase a stake in humanities future.
We have built our building in our field that our kinship to our denominational partners offered to us. Now we must open our imagination to a vision of a bridge that crosses all the chasms that separate humanity and invite all people to embrace the transforming love of Christ.
We have had the vision that brought us into this place.
We have read the story that gives the vision of the destructive separation of humanity and the violence of apathy. We now need to grasp a vision of a future that Christ is calling us to. That is the call to action from these readings because:
‘Our visions of the future nearly always become our agendas of the present’.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 474.