Rev. Tony Clark
ACC-UCC“Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself” This land is your land, This land is my land, From California, to the New York Islands, from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream Waters, This land was made for you and me.
When my mother died, her 6 acres of farmland in northern Ohio was in foreclosure, and by the time we sprinkled her ashes there some months later, we knew we were trespassing on bank-owned land. When my grandmother died, at the ripe age of 98, she had no real estate; she had sold the house she and my grandfather had lived in for some 30 years after my grandfather died, and she rented an apartment for the last 15 years of her life. And then there is my father, still alive, who owns a house in Florida, which, if he were to die tomorrow, neither my sister nor I would move into to live; we would sell the property and use the cash for our own properties, investments, or living expenses.
Most of us these days, if we inherit property from our deceased loved ones, we do not immediately move there; we sell the property and take the cash. This is easier, in my case, than restarting my entire life in Tallahassee, Florida.
I looked it up. California has some 49 million acres of public lands. It includes beaches, forests, grasslands, mountains, deserts, lakes, and rivers, and both undeveloped wilderness and developed parks. This legacy of land that we have gained over the last century and more includes lands that are now available for us, the public– land that was hard fought, expensively bought, and highly sought. It is an inheritance that we freely give our next generations so that they may know the God-given grace of great groves of trees; the running, rushing, roaring rivers and silent sacred sanctuaries of natural spiritual sites; the broad beaches with bounding, breaking waves, and mighty mountains that humble us and remind us of our finitude in the immense infinite universe of God’s Creation. Our public lands and waterways connect us to our place and time, while also calling us into the ancient, geological, evolutionary, and human history of our planet and universe.
Perhaps this is the greatest inheritance we give to the generations who will follow us. The land that others have set aside, and that we use and care for—we are stewards of the future—is perhaps the greatest thing we bequeath to those who come after.
Property, land, real estate was once coveted, and inheriting it was not simply a means to wealth, in the bible, inheriting land meant also inheriting a piece of God’s promise. For Jeremiah’s people, owning property meant owning a piece of the Promised Land. The land was a direct link to God’s promise of prosperity, of peace, of permanence. Owning property was a symbol of God’s favor– a reminder that once we wandered in the desert for 40 years, and now we have settled in this land that God set aside for us.
Losing that land symbolically meant that you lost a bit of the promise, and you also gave away your children’s inheritance to God’s Promise. To correct this injustice to future generations, there was a legal way for the land to be reclaimed, to be bought back, to be redeemed. Family members could buy the land back for you, redeem the land for you, and reclaim not only your inherited property, but also the Promise you inherited from God, as well as restoring your children and grandchildren’s entitlement to God’s promise.
However, even though Jeremiah had the legal right to purchase the land back for his cousin Hanamel, it was a foolish thing to do. Jerusalem was being besieged by Babylon, and all land would soon be taken by the Babylonians. The owners would be taken in Exile to Babylon, and the land and any rights to it would be lost. Not just Jeremiah, but all people could see the writing on the wall. Buying property, even property that you had a right to buy, was foolish; yet it was an act to show that God would bring the people back to the Promised Land.
They faced losing all the Promised Land, all the Holy Land where God walked and played and prayed and came home to after hard days of dealing with the woes of the world. The prospect of losing the land as well as the Jerusalem Temple, which was believed to be the earthly home of God, was an enormous theological crisis. Losing the Promised Land meant losing God’s Promise for peace, prosperity and permanence. The loss of the Promise put the people into a theological crisis that changed the religious landscape and has defined our Judeo-Christian experience for the last 2500 years.
The Exile began in 587 BCE, and after some 45 years in Exile, people were allowed to repatriate Israel and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Those who went back were the children of those First Exiles, and they went back to reclaim their rightful inherited Promise. However, not all people wanted to leave their homes in Persia; many stayed in Persia, and created a theology that included a God who lived not just at the Temple, but everywhere. Ever since Judaism has since been dealing with both a Diaspora—a dispersed population not centered in Jerusalem—and a longing to come home. After the worship services for Yom Kippur and Passover, Jews still recite the words, Next year in Jerusalem. During the Middle Ages, the longing to reclaim the Promised Land was transferred to Christians who held Crusade after Crusade in an attempt to reclaim, and redeem the land. And the idea of Promised Land was inherited by our forebears–the Pilgrims, Puritans and others, who sought religious freedom on the shores of the New World. America became the new Promised Land, and settlers claimed the right of Manifest Destiny—that God had given them the right to claim what they saw as God’s second Promised Land. Not just for colonization of the Americas, but also for colonization across the globe, the land was seen as Providential right granted by God to be taken by the holy ones—Christians—who were clearly superior to anyone and everyone in their paths.
Our land today has none of that Promised Land feeling. Land is a commodity, a good to be bought and sold. It functions to house us, to bring us peace, respite, and relaxation, but it has limited value much beyond that, especially in the suburbs and urban centers—subsistence farming on a city plot would be incredibly difficult, so although we may grow some of our food there, we cannot grow all of it in our yards. Our land means something else today—not a promise that includes food for family through the future generations, but a place that promises shelter and rest for this generation. Although there are still family farms that are divided up, and passed on from generation to generation, but these are rare and getting rarer.
Our relationship with land is much different than in the past. Land is no longer Promised, land is no longer the guarantee of grace, it no longer frames the family’s future of a farming life, land is no longer the gift providing life to the next generation that it once was. Once sold, we have no greater legal right to purchase the land back than anyone else, beholden to free-market forces and capitalism.
Instead, we’ve placed that sense of a protected, promised place in our Public lands. Pristine parks preserve our connection to Creation and Creator. Those lands are held in public trust for future generations to enjoy. They do not provide anything much more than spiritual centers, places to explore the feelings of finitude in the face of immense beauty. Those lands are our inheritance, they are the promises for our next generations.
Those lands are much like this church building; as inheritors of lands from former generations, we are called on to be stewards of it so that those who come after us can enjoy them too. This is what we are called to do with our church buildings and grounds.
When I preach on the building as gift we have inherited to care for, inevitably someone will come up to me after church and say, “the church is not the building; it is the people.” I agree. We are the community, the community of faithful that has gathered at this site for generations. And before 1947—the date of the social hall—they worshipped elsewhere. Today, we are the community linked back in time through our faith to those Jews of Jeremiah’s day, who faced losing their Promised Land, deportation to Babylon, Exile, and the theological crisis that allowed them to expand their ideas of home and particularly God’s home.
The Exiles experienced God in Babylon, and they sang the words of Psalm 139: If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. The Exiles learned that God is everywhere.
Knowing that god is everywhere, we still long for land. We long to be connected to place. We long to be connected to ancient times as well as to future unimaginable times. Public land, like churches, that are held in trust for the next generation to experience, grant this connection to times past and times future.
Although we may not so much seek to inherit our parents’ land, we seek to inherit land that promises purifying peace, and surprises us with spiritual sanctity. We long for that place where we can go to be healed, a place that is perhaps not the home of our parents, but the home of our True Parent, God. Places that promise God’s presence. These places are set aside for the public so that no one person can redeem and reclaim them away from everyone. These places are set aside so that what we gain, what is redeemed, what is reclaimed is our souls. These public lands provide places for us to experience God’s promise of peace, prosperity, and permanence. In this way, these lands, like our church, are Promised.
May we continue to protect them so that the Promise of peace, of prosperity, and permanence, can be passed to the next generations.