This is a talk I gave to a group of colleagues the other day. Hope you find it helpful. Or funny. Or even both.
We are in weird times. Unprecedented times. Worrying times.
Most days, I have to remind myself that the Kingdom of God is a perfectly safe and good place to be. Most days I have to renew my citizenship, because it is so easy to get sucked in the opposite direction.
And at the moment it is especially hard.
It feels a bit like all the anxiety and uncertainty of the past few years has finally coalesced into a tsunami of fear. Everything seems to have changed.
And the truth is the world has changed. And it will go on changing for a bit. Because that is what the world always does.
But that’s why it’s always good to remember, whatever the scale of the changes, that the Kingdom of God is a perfectly safe and good place to be.
We are all worried. That’s OK. It’s a fearful moment. We face enormous challenges as a country and as individuals. We have to face the facts: some of us may lose loved ones.
Some of us have already suffered loss, in that cherished plans, things we’ve worked hard at for months, have had to be cancelled. So we will need to learn how to lament with each other.
But we also need to remind each other: the Kingdom of God is a safe and good place to be.
But it’s not without loss and pain. It’s not Disneyland.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples a really important question: “Who do you say that I am?”
It’s Peter, of course, who answers: “You are the Messiah.”
It’s a moment of confirmation for the disciples. And joy: the Messianic kingdom, the Kingdom of God has arrived. For the Jews, this meant victory and celebration and general all-out banqueting with a side-order of gloating over their enemies. But what is interesting is that Jesus goes on, not only to tell them not to tell anyone else about it, but also to say how he must suffer and die. This new Messianic kingdom is very different to how they imagined it. It is, in a way, much bigger, because it not only encompasses the good bits (although maybe not the gloating) but a whole load of crappy bits as well. Somehow the borders of this kingdom are big enough to contain pain and suffering and loss and poverty and injustice, and still not be infected by them.
Indeed, the message of Jesus’ life – a message carried on his body, in fact – is that wounds can be transformed. His resurrection body was scarred. It still bore witness to what he had endured. And that’s important: nothing of what happens in our lives – and nothing of what will happen in the next weeks and months – will disappear. But it can all be transfigured.
We need to remember this as well. The Kingdom of God is big enough to hold all of our experience: our fears and our sadness, as well as our joys and our laughter. And it is still a perfectly safe and good place to be.
In his book on the Benedictine rule, Rowan Williams writes that “For Benedict and for all Christian communities, their life is possible because of the underlying belief that God is to be trusted.”
We forget this. We tend to put our trust in plans and procedures and processes and people. And they are all good things. But at the very root of our belief is the idea that God is to be trusted.
Knowing that we are in a safe place, knowing that God is to be trusted, enables us to think and act differently.
Jeremiah buys a field
In Jeremiah 32, the fabulously gloomy prophet does perhaps the most bizarre thing that he ever did. (And that is going some because we are talking about a man who went about dressed only in his underwear for three years.)
He buys a field.
What makes this weird? He’s living in Jerusalem at the time, a city under siege. The entire kingdom has been grabbed by the Babylonians. And if you’ve ever been grabbed by the Babylonians you will know that’s a deeply unpleasant experience. Jeremiah is in a city under lockdown. He’s not only in a besieged city, he’s under house arrest because his messages are so politically unpopular. That, my friends, is what you call self-isolating. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the field he buys is in Anathoth, a place 3 miles north of Jerusalem. Which is right where there the Babylonian army is camped.
He basically buys a field full of Babylonian soldiers. That’s not a great cash crop.
He buys the field, signs the deeds, and puts them in a clay jar for safety.
Why does he do this? Because God told him to do it:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (Jeremiah 31.14-15)
Purchasing the land, having the contract drawn up, sealing it in a clay jar – it all seems such small and futile gestures in the face of the imminent conquest of Jerusalem.
But it’s actually huge. It’s an act of faith at a time when everything seemed lost. It’s a sign, that there will be a return. There will be a restoration. As God says at the end of this oracle, the Judeans will be ‘replanted’ in their land.
‘Fields shall be bought for money, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed.’
Small acts of faithful witness
So the challenge for us all at this time is, ‘are we prepared to buy a field?’ Are we prepared to invest in the kingdom? Are we prepared to faithfully look forward to the time when once again ‘Houses and fields and vineyards are bought in this land.’
As I said, it must have seemed a strange and almost futile act to do, faced with what was going on.
But I think it’s those acts which always make a difference. The small acts of faithful witness, the tiny acts of hope and generosity and love, are the ones which can be the biggest signs to our world.
We will see hardship and pain in the forthcoming days. But we will also see good things as well.
My grandmother brought with her some key beliefs out of the Second World War. There was her political beliefs which made Genghis Khan look like Jeremy Corbin. There was her devout belief that the way to cook all vegetables was to boil them until they liquified. (Seriously – hers were the only meals I’ve ever had where the vegetables were more fluid than the gravy.) And there was her belief that things were better during the blitz.
“Everyone was much nicer to one another,” she would say. To which I replied, “Not everyone, Nan. Some of them were dropping bombs on you.”
And she would respond, “Shut up and drink your sprouts.”
But she had a point. We do see the best of people in adversity. We see the worst as well, but I hope there will be less of that. This is a chance for all of us to look out for each other.
So what I want us to do is, each day think, where’s the field. What action of hope am I being called to do today? How can I show my neighbours, flatmates, partners, children, family, friends that there is a bigger world than this, and a greater hope than just that ‘things will get back to normal’?
We will learn a lot in this time. We will learn about ourselves as a community and as individuals. We will learn more about prayer, more about patience, I’m sure. We will learn more about our own fears and desires. We will learn how to be thankful. We may learn how to lament.
But we will also learn, I believe, that the Kingdom of God is beyond all human kingdoms. That it cannot be locked down, and its borders can never be closed.
We will learn, I hope, that the Kingdom of God is still a safe and good place to be.
And I hope that all of us, will buy a field.