Into the abandoned and besieged places

How the prophet Jeremiah’s purchase of a piece of land 2500 years ago speaks into our community’s engagement with music: a sermon on Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15


ow, I know that as we heard those words from the prophet Jeremiah read aloud, with all of its details as to who was king and who was related to who and who owned this particular piece of property, it was easy to stop listening and to let your mind wander off. “Oh, it is one of those readings.”  Yet behind all of those names and seemingly obscure details, there is something extraordinary going on.

For years Jeremiah had been warning of disaster. This nation, this people, this city, is headed for complete and utter collapse. We’ve not been the covenant people we were called to be, he keeps saying, and as a result God is going to let the whole works get “plucked up and torn down.” The instrument that will be used to do this is the much feared and much reviled Babylonian empire, whose army is at the gates of the city, rattling its swords and spears. It is all over.

And then suddenly Jeremiah is faced with a real estate deal.

(M)y cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘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.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. (Jeremiah 32:8)

“Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.”  Something is going on here. So Jeremiah buys a piece of land, sealed with title and deed, and offers a word as to what it is he understands himself to be doing:

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. (32:15)

Appearances to the contrary, Babylon will not have the final word. Doesn’t mean that things will be easy, and when the conquering army does march in they bring a calculated violence that reduces the city to hell on earth. Read the book of Lamentations, and you’ll see just how bad it was.

But Jeremiah bought his piece of land. It wasn’t land speculation, and it wasn’t prudent planning for the post-war years. In fact, there is no reason to think he ever settled on the land that he’d bought. He doesn’t think for a minute that his purchase is doing anything, as if maybe he’ll start a trend in which others will buy land, and suddenly find they’ve turned the tide on the Babylonians. His purchase was a prophetic act; a statement of how things should be and shall be.

Jeremiah’s story is part of what lies at the root of a practice being carried out by those in the “new monastic” movement, namely to “relocate to the abandoned places of the empire” (the first of the 12 marks of New Monasticism) This is a principle that is informing something called House Blend Ministry, an experiment currently happening in our own West Broadway neighborhood; an experiment in which several people connected to this church community are deeply involved.  A house on Furby Street has been purchased – just up the street from the rather notorious Sherbrook Inn – and three young people have moved in. Along with others connected to the project, and under the guidance of Rachel Twigg Boyce, they are trying to learn something of what it means to live out this faith in a social context that many have deemed unsafe, unsavoury, and fully deserving of abandonment.

In short, they’re acting about as illogically as was Jeremiah when he bought his field.

Now, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about this business of abandonment, and wondering about other places that are under siege. Given the number of musicians who call this place home, I found myself thinking about the stories they’ve told me about the music world, and how besieged it is right now.

Think about this. Since the advent of recording technology, music has become a kind of steady soundtrack to our lives. If you are over the age of 30, chances are that you discovered music first through the radio, and then at some point began to buy recorded versions of your favourite songs or artists. Was it vinyl records, cassette tapes, or CDs?

If you are under 30, the radio might still have played a role, but records? Try downloads, Jamie. Right now, many of you have an iPod in your pocket loaded with enough music to fill a bookcase with vinyl records or CDs. And even if you purchased those songs, you got them for 99 cents a piece. Put in perspective, that’s about the same price I paid for my first 45 vinyl single, back in 1971.

Steve Bell talks about how, in the mid-90s when he released the Romantics and Mystics CD Hull’s Bookstore ordered 500 copies, whereas they ordered about half that number for the 2008 Devotion album, and that in smaller lots spread out over several months.  This is what he wrote me in an e-mail message commenting on the changes in the music world:

It is a depressing reality these days. I talk to so many really good artists who are simply beside themselves trying to figure out how they can monetize enough to make a living wage and pursue their craft. I’ve stopped being encouraging.  There’s no reason to assume that if one just does the right things it will be doable.

The music business as we knew it is in the midst of a major collapse. Sure, there are still a few artists who will sell a million copies of their newest CD, but for most working musicians things will never be like that.

The major labels are scrambling to find a way forward, the independent labels and artists stagger on – almost everyone needs a day job – and the working musician tries to sort out where the next month’s rent is coming from. Do you give away your music online, and spend endless weeks and months on tour, playing wherever you can? Join the house-concert circuit, playing for 25 or 30 people at a gig, driving all over the country in a car you can’t really afford to be running, with the tires worn thin to the point of being dangerous? There is little joy, little life, to be found in that, and many a fine musician is packing it in and calling it a day.

Yet at the same time, as a culture we are consuming more music than ever. Everywhere we go, music is playing in the background, and everywhere you look people are plugged into those iPods.

As a church community, we’re looking at ways to move into the crumbling neighborhood that is the music industry, saying we actually believe that the creation of great music is important for the soul. Good music shouldn’t just be the background noise to our busy lives, but rather needs to be part of what feeds us and fuels our imaginations.  And it needs to be part of what slows us down, and invites us to listen, to pay attention.

So, Sunday by Sunday, musicians lead us in the offering of praise to our God, and in inviting them to share with us their new and original music, we embrace the vocation of the songwriter. Some of the songs first offered here have been picked up by church communities from right across the country and beyond. And more than once, I’ve had a musician tell me that playing here on Sunday nights has given them back a love of music; something that had been ground away in the insecurity of playing professionally.

We’re actively looking for ways to get behind these musicians in their creative work. So we send Mike Koop and his “Multitude of Sins” into the studio to record an album to be released later this fall. Earlier this week, Alana Levandoski spent two days right here, in this church space, recording a set of new songs. While strictly speaking not a saint ben’s project, it has some very real connections to this community, and that beyond the church serving as her studio.

And a bit of a sidebar to the sermon… by the time I was standing to preach, Alana had already led us in a brand new song called “Listen,” which she’d written after reading a section from Calvin Seerveld’s Rainbows for the Fallen World on Saturday night, and then a section of the book of Job on the Sunday morning. “Listen, listen,” we sang, “To creation sing in tongues. Listen, listen, For the wisdom you can’t know.”

Gord Johnson has now been brought on board as our artist-in-residence, and part of his challenge will be not only to keep writing songs for the church, but also to discern ways to shape our thinking and practice around this vocation of creating and offering music.

In other words, one of our “neighborhoods” – one of the abandoned places – is the music world, and as the old building blocks of that world shift and crumble, we are seeking creative ways to move in and be a part of the shaping of a new way.

Now when Jeremiah bought his plot of land, he didn’t think he was fixing or changing or adjusting anything. He didn’t do it to help stabilize property values or to start a run on the purchase of land. He bought that property as a way of saying just one thing: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” There is hope and there is a future.

As we look at new ways to offer up music for the soul, we need to also know that we aren’t about to fix an industry that is broken. But, like Jeremiah, we will seek small ways in which to say – sing – of our hope in the future that God has for us.

Then again, we are a gospel people, and tucked in the gospel is this insistence that in God’s strange kingdom it is the small things – the mustard seeds in the garden, and the bits of yeast in the dough – that are doing the deepest work.

It is a joy to be part of moving into this besieged place, and to be able to dream a bigger dream.


Jamie Howison

One Response to Into the abandoned and besieged places

  1. byron says:

    Amen Jamie Amen!

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