A Hopeful Venture

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 2, 2022

Jeremiah 32:6-15 and Luke 17:5-6

I really like the fact that from my house in Duluth I can look upon the largest freshwater lake in the world. Lake Superior. And I like the fact that the town of Wahkon where one of the churches I serve is located, is on the shores of Minnesota’s second largest lake, Lake Mille Lacs.

We all know that we are the “land of 10,000 lakes.” But according to the DNR there are actually 11,842 lakes in our fair state. Slogan-wise, “10,000 lakes” has a better ring to it. Though I would take issue with the DNR and argue that there actually 11,843 lakes in Minnesota. For some reason they left out the most famous of our lakes. That would be, “Yesterday Lake.”

You may wonder where Yesterday Lake is located. We’ve all been to it at one time or another. It’s the lake where we are told, “You should have been here yesterday! The fish were practically jumping in the boat!”

We all know about yesterday. We often of fond memories of many of our days past. Something about yesterday can make it seem better than today. It seems like every generation comes to remember that, “Life was more simple back then.”

When I served churches in Iowa, one of which was in the town of Dows, at the time Dows had a population of around 700 people. People would say, “We used to have three grocery stores in this town.” Looking back to the good old days; back when it seemed there was more of a sense of life and vitality; when things were looking up; back in better days.

A certain mindset had developed over the years, a mindset that accommodated itself to decline and diminishing returns. Young people grew up and moved away. Old people died and there were fewer in the line behind them. Resources were shrinking.

That sense of inevitable decline crept into church life, too. Just like there used to be three grocery stores in the town, “Why, we used to have a hundred kids in Sunday school. And the sanctuary was packed with people on a Sunday morning. You should have been here yesterday.”

One night at a session meeting folks were working through the usual agenda and I recall that one item on the agenda was the need for new doors at the entrance to the church building. We talked about style and cost and the typical sort of wrangling involved in something as critical to a church as new doors.

One person made the comment, “Do we want to put a lot of money into new doors when the church will end up closing someday anyway?” That was a fairly common statement – the dim and not so hopeful future someday when the church has to close.

One woman at the meeting was Shirley Peters. Shirley usually said what was on her mind. She got everyone’s attention when she slapped her palm on the tabletop with a loud smack.

“Now wait just a darn minute!” she said. “I am getting sick and tired of hearing about ‘when the church is going to close.’ This church has been here for over a hundred years. There is

no way that I intend to watch it die out in my lifetime. As long as I have life and breath, I expect this church to be here. So if you want to close this church you can just wait until I’m dead and gone!” That ended talk of when the church has to close. Eventually, they joined hands with the local United Methodist church and both congregations are going strong.

It was kind of like what Andy said in the film “The Shawshank Redemption” – “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Sometimes we need a reminder like a palm slapping the tabletop, that in God’s economy it’s always time to get busy living. The realm of Christ operates by principles that don’t always add up to common sense.

Uncommon sense such as –

“First shall be last and the last shall be first.”

“Turn the other cheek. If someone forces you to carry the load for a mile, then carry it for two miles.”

“The shepherd leaves the flock and goes after the lone stray.”

When we study the way of life set forth in the teachings of Jesus, we discover an economy in which  transactions are made not in dollars and cents, but in faith and trust.

One time his followers said, “Increase our faith.” If faith is what we need, then give us more of what we need. Show us how we can get more of this thing called faith, so that we can do more, be better disciples, and understand the deeper meaning of what it is you’re trying to teach us.

Common sense dictates that more of a good thing is always better.

Jesus told them, “It’s not more faith you need. You can experience what God makes possible with even the tiniest amount of faith. If you could measure the necessary belief and trust in God, then something the size of a mustard seed would be big enough for you to have everything God has on offer. It’s not how much faith you have – it’s using what you’ve got.”

People will sometimes say of faith, “We want to know how it applies to our lives in practical ways.” For a while – years actually – I tried to find those practical ways and means of the Christian life. A leads to B, two plus two equals four, and ten steps to whatever form of spiritual enlightenment seems possible at the time.

But the more I studied it, the more it seemed that being a Christian is not a practical matter. No matter how we try to dissect it, parse and measure it out, the Christian life always comes down to Jesus saying, “If you want to be my follower, then pick up your cross and follow me.” To find the life God makes possible, we embrace the qualities of life that God requires.

That goes against the grain of current wisdom. Instant gratification is the trend. Signing on is easy, just fill in this form – click this link and your dreams are fulfilled. You can get whatever you want whenever you want.

Jesus is saying that when you give something up, even your life, you discover a freedom that no amount of money can purchase. You discover a heart and soul reality that is beyond price. It’s not practical because you can’t package it and put it on a store shelf. It’s not practical because it has no sell-by date. What God has on offer is timeless.

There was a time when the people of Jerusalem were looking at the end of their existence. The year was 587 BC. 2,520 years ago, the military might of Babylon had surrounded the city of Jerusalem and it wouldn’t be long before the walls came tumbling down. If they resisted, they would be destroyed. If they surrendered, they would be carted off to a life of captivity in Babylon. The end of the world as we know it never seems like a good choice.

In the years leading up to that stand-off the people believed that because they were God’s chosen people, God would come through for them. God would send some kind of rescue in the end. That’s what a lot of the official prophets were saying. Not to worry, just show a little faith.

One of the prophets held a different view. His name was Jeremiah. Jeremiah was not a popular prophet because he tended to tell people things they didn’t want to hear. He said, “God is not coming to your rescue. In fact, God is using Babylon to show you the error of your ways. They will destroy the city and you will be taken into captivity.”

One time when the official prophets were going on and on about God pulling them out of the fire at the last minute, Jeremiah came along with a big clay jar. He lifted up the jar and threw it on the ground where it broke into shards. “That’s you,” he said.

One time he walked around stark naked for two years. “Jeremiah,” people said, “Why don’t you put on some clothes?”

“Because God’s going to strip you bare,” he answered.

He was not a popular guy. There toward the very end, just when the people could hear the sounds of the besieging armies beating their swords upon their shields, Jeremiah came up with one last illustration of what God was going to do. “We know, we know, we’re doomed. You’ve been telling us; we get it now.”

But Jeremiah had something different in mind. He had a clay jar, and in the clay jar he placed a deed to a piece of land. He sealed it up so that it would last a long time. When everything seemed absolutely lost, Jeremiah went out and purchased a field. He bought that piece of land as an act of hope.

“There will come a time,” he said, “when houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  Most of them would never live to see that time. Some of the very young children would be very old people by then. But their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children would come back and build those houses, to work those fields and plant those vineyards.

That’s the way God’s economy operates. Anyone can sign on a successful thriving venture. It takes faith to sign on to a hopeful venture. We were a church yesterday. We are a church today. We will be a church tomorrow. Amen.

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