November 4, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Some Bible history is needed to appreciate the passage of scripture we read for today. Jeremiah lived at a pivotal time in the life of the Jewish people. We’re about 600 years before the birth of Christ. The Babylonian Empire was the great power of the day. King Nebuchadnezzar was a name that struck fear into their hearts. He was threatening their existence. Their world was crumbling.
During Jeremiah’s lifetime, a series of horrible defeats came to his people. There was the siege ofJerusalem. The city was sealed off and the Babylonians just waited for the Jews to get hungry enough to surrender. When they finally did, the Babylonians rushed in and burned their city. They destroyed theirTemple. They captured their king, Zedekiah. They killed his sons, his heirs, while he watched. And then with this as the last thing he saw, they put his eyes out. It would have been kinder to kill him. But they put his eyes out and led him in chains 800 miles across the desert toBabylon.
It is estimated that 18,000 Jews were exiled toBabylonwith him. They handpicked those the Jews could least afford to lose. Leaders, skilled workers, the wealthy, the young, the most able. They left Jeremiah behind. In retrospect, that was a mistake.
You can read all this history in the history section of the Old Testament. It’s in II Kings and II Chronicles. You can also read about it in the book of Jeremiah. Though it will drive you a little crazy because Jeremiah is not arranged in a way the makes it easy to follow the narrative.
We read today one of the most familiar passages of Jeremiah. It’s his letter to the exiles. He writes from the ruins ofJerusalem. He sends this letter toBabylon, 800 miles away, to his fellow countrymen who have been forcibly relocated. What he tells them in the letter is probably not what they expected to hear. They probably expected and wanted to hear encouragement to resist their captors. Instead he tells them the opposite. He tells them to build homes, plant gardens, get married, have children, contribute to the welfare of your new home. In other words he tells them not to fight what has happened to them. What has happened has happened. Your captivity won’t last forever, but it will last for a long time. So he tells them to bloom where they have been planted.
And that’s exactly what the Jews have done ever since, not just inBabylon. It was 70 years after the birth of Christ that the rebuiltTemplewas destroyed again and the “Diaspora” began. This was the dispersing of Jews all over the world. For nearly 1900 years, until the founding of the modern state ofIsraelin 1948, they had no homeland. But wherever they lived, they made that place their home. They built homes, planted gardens, started families, prayed, and worked for the welfare of the community in which they lived. And I think you know, it often has not been easy. Hatred of the Jews has been a blot on human history for centuries, reaching the low point in the lifetime of many of you, with the horror known as the Holocaust.
But in spite of hatred and hardship and bigotry, in spite of the worst any of us could imagine, they still bloomed and they still do bloom where they are planted. They take Jeremiah’s letter to heart. They take whatever circumstances they find themselves in and they work to make those circumstances better.
I would suggest that that is one way to understand stewardship. Stewardship is taking whatever cards God has dealt us, whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves, however much we might wish those circumstances could be different, and we dig in for the long haul. We don’t just survive, we find a way to thrive. We bloom where we are planted. And we do all we can to make life better for all those around us.
That’s not the way we often talk about stewardship at church. I must admit I have been guilty of perpetuating this more limited understanding. We often think of stewardship as gratitude for what God has given us. And we are entering the season of the year when this understanding of stewardship will be the dominant theme. Thanksgiving is the time when we thank God for all we have been given. We count our blessings. And we express our thanks by giving something back. I’m not against that. There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes.
One of Clarence Darrow’s clients thanked him for representing him in court. He said, “What can I ever do to show my appreciation for all you have done for me?” Clarence Darrow said, “Ever since the ancient Phoenicians invented money, there has been only one answer to that question.”
We give out of gratitude. And that’s a good thing to do. But can we be honest about something? You know what it’s called when we give out of gratitude. It’s called a gratuity. And I’m afraid that’s the way many of us view stewardship. That’s the model of stewardship I have been guilty of preaching in the past. That giving is really just a gratuity. A generous gratuity let’s hope, but still a gratuity. The question is, “How much do we tip here?” “What is the local custom?” Some people will say, “I can’t give because it’s been a bad year.” As if stewardship were a gratuity. It’s given out of what we have left over. It’s a way of thanking God for our affluence.
Gratitude is where stewardship begins. Without the attitude of gratitude, we will be miserable and we will make everyone around us miserable. Gratitude is taught all through the Bible. Please don’t hear me saying anything against gratitude.
I’m just saying that stewardship is more than gratitude. Stewardship is not a gratuity paid to God for services rendered. Stewardship, according to the Bible, is digging in wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, and using your resources to make the world better. Stewardship is not a gratuity, it is a responsibility. It is a way of life. It is not paying God for something God has done for you, it is doing something for others because God has given you the resources to do so.
That’s what we find in Jeremiah’s letter. It’s also what we find in his life. Jeremiah is one I take extra seriously because he practiced what he preached. Remember I said that Jeremiah was not one of those taken in chains toBabylon. He was left behind inJerusalem. Well, one good reason they didn’t take him is because they didn’t want him. WhileJerusalemwas being besieged and the Babylonians were waiting for the surrender, Jeremiah was in prison. He was in prison because he was not one of King Zedekiah’s biggest fans. He said some unpopular things, such as that the Babylonians were just giving the Jews what they deserved because King Zedekiah had been such a terrible king. The king didn’t like that and so he locked Jeremiah up. Jeremiah is locked up whileJerusalemis under siege.
That’s the scene when Jeremiah has a visitor. It’s his cousin from nearby Anathoth. Anathoth is about 3 miles fromJerusalem. His cousin wants to talk to Jeremiah about a real estate transaction. He has land in the fashionable suburbs of Anathoth he thinks his cousin might be interested in. He says, “Have I got a deal for you!”
The only worse time to buy real estate would have been about in 2006, before the bottom fell out of our market. Actually, in Jeremiah’s day it would have been worse, because the land Jeremiah’s cousin was offering had Babylonians camped on it. And even though it hadn’t happened yet, it didn’t take a genius to see thatJerusalemwas about to be destroyed. This was the end of the world as they knew it. And his cousin is talking real estate?
But you know what Jeremiah does? He buys the land. He pays the fair market price. He does it to make a statement, and here is his statement: “Houses and fields and vineyards will once again he bought and sold in this land” (32:15).
Now I have a question. Do you think Jeremiah bought that land out of gratitude? I really don’t think he was feeling very grateful at that moment. In fact, as you study Jeremiah, you discover that he was something of a grouch. He was always complaining. We have a whole book in the Bible called Lamentations that is filled with Jeremiah’s complaining.
I’m not sure I can blame Jeremiah. Gratitude was hard to come by. Jeremiah lived in a tough time. One of the toughest in history. But the thing about Jeremiah is that he believed with all his heart that God is the Lord of history. And since he believed that, since he believed that God is really still in charge, he could show that faith with his actions. Not with words, but with deeds. Not with small things, but with big things. Not little charities, but significant investments. Like buying real estate in Anathoth that everyone says is worthless and will never be worth anything. He bought that land as an expression of his faith that God is in charge and that therefore someday, “Houses and fields and vineyards will once again be bought and sold in this land.”
Stewardship is not a gratuity. Stewardship is a responsibility. Stewardship is an act of faith. Stewardship is showing what you believe about God.
In Tuesday’s election, your vote is more than your civic responsibility. It is also your spiritual responsibility. Never forget that free elections don’t exist in many of the nations on this earth. So voting is a huge privilege. It’s a blessing from God. You may have just one vote. Let’s hope you have just one vote! But voting means more than just that one vote. Voting means this country does not belong to our president or to our Congress or to those elected to positions of power. Our country belongs to each of us and all of us. We all have the responsibility to guard the principles on which this nations was founded. We all have a responsibility to build on these principles to right what is wrong in our country. As Christians we don’t believe it’s all up to us. We believe God is in charge. But we also believe that God has made us stewards of the blessings we enjoy in this country. So like Jeremiah, we invest in our country, even in difficult times. Especially in difficult times. And it’s not just a token investment. It’s not a gratuity. It’s costly, as it was for the signers of the Declaration of Independence who pledges their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
Oseola McCarty loved her country. She loved her God. And she loved theUniversityofSouthern Mississippi. I want to close by telling you about her stewardship.
She didn’t attend theUniversityofSouthern Mississippi. She didn’t attend any school after sixth grade. That was when her aunt who was raising her got sick, so Oseola quit school and went to work. She was 11 years old. From that point on, she worked every day of her life until age 86 when arthritis forced her to retire. That’s 75 years. She did laundry for other people. Her uncle gave her a house in 1947. She never moved out of thatHattiesburg,Mississippihome. She never married. She never learned to drive. She never owned a car. She walked everywhere she went. She never travelled. She said there was nowhere else she really wanted to go.
She lived a simple life and she was always careful to spend less than she made. She was pretty good at saving money. In fact, Oseola McCarty became famous because of something she decided to do with her savings when she was 87 years old. She gave $150,000 to theUniversityofSouthern MississippiinHattiesburg. A lot of people have given more. Universities commonly accept much larger gifts. But what got national attention was how someone of such modest means could possibly have saved that much money. And been willing to part with it, and to hold back just a little to live on in her final years.
She was now a celebrity. People came to see her. Especially reporters and dignitaries. They would ask, “Why would you do this?” And she would always give the same answer. “I figured the money would do them more good than it would do me.”
The funny thing about her story is that it shamed the business leaders ofHattiesburginto matching her gift. Which is really something if you think about it. All those prominent business leaders joining forces so that they together could match the gift of this poor old lady!
So now there is $300,000 in the Oseola McCarty Scholarship Fund. The first scholarship went to a young woman named Stephanie Bullock. Without that scholarship she would not have been able to go to college. She went on to graduate with honors.
Oseola McCarty was a member ofFriendshipBaptistChurchinHattiesburg. She was quite familiar with Jeremiah. And I think it’s safe to assume that she also knew about King Nebuchadnezzar and aboutBabylon. Because she grew up in a day when being poor and black inMississippifelt like living inBabylon. The black preachers certainly used these passages frequently. And Oseola was one who did settle in, keep a house, plant a garden, work for the welfare of her community, and pray forHattiesburg.
One of the questions a reporter asked was why she gave all her money to a school that wouldn’t even have accepted her back when she was of college age. It wasn’t until the early 60’s that they started accepting black students. So why didn’t she give that money to some black college? Why theUniversityofSouthern Mississippi? She answered, “Because it’s here.”
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat
what they produce. Take wives and have sons and
daughters. Seek the welfare of the city in which I have
sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.
Gracious God, the source of all that we have and all that we are, this subject of stewardship is not something we grapple with when the church is raising its budget and ignore the rest of the year. Stewardship is life. Stewardship is how we choose to live our lives in response to your love. So help us, God, to bloom where we are planted and live our lives in such a way that life is better for everyone around us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.