Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-15; Matthew 6:21
It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to Jourdan Anderson’s 1865 letter to his old master, to the color coded map on the front of our bulletin, to the Black Manifesto, to Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century. A long and winding road. The letter and the map are both pieces that Adam brought in to our Exodus Bible Study class in the spring. We were trying to make connections between the Hebrew’s exodus from slavery narrative and the African American experience. These two pieces did that, with the bonus of bringing it home to Ohio soil.
Last Sunday’s sermon included the story of James Forman interrupting worship services at predominantly white churches throughout 1969, beginning with the influential Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York. He did this to read from the recently written Black Manifesto which called for reparations for black Americans from white Christians and Jews.
One hundred years before this a formerly enslaved man named Jourdon Anderson, living in Dayton Ohio, wrote a private letter to his former master (included at the end of the sermon). The old master had initiated the correspondence, as Jourdon acknowledges in the opening. “Sir, I got your letter and was glad you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again.” Jourdon goes on to highly qualify what he might mean by “glad.” It seems that the former master still holds a place for Jourdon in his heart. The feeling, it seems, is not mutual. The formerly enslaved Jourdon would only be glad for a reunion if the old master has a change of heart. And Jourdon is careful to outline just what a change of heart would look like. He essentially asks that his old master give up all claims of masterhood, present, future, and, very importantly, past. Treasure accumulated from the unpaid labor of Jourdon and his wife would be returned to them. These fair wages would now serve as reparations. Even though late in coming, they would be a sign that, in the words of Jourdon, “the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers in making us toil for you for generations without recompense.”
There are any number of teachings from the gospels that relate to what we’ve been talking about. But I want to pick out one brief statement from Jesus as a way of following a thread through these different eras and stories in front of us.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He makes a direct connection between treasure and heart, and I want to follow this thread of treasure and heart for a while. It will be winding, but hopefully not too long.
For the ancients, the heart was the center of the being. It was the home of physical warmth and energy. It was also the seat of intelligence, of intention, and even sensation, perception. The condition of the heart had moral overtones. You think and sense and reason and aim with your heart.
These days our fascination has migrated about a foot and a half north to the brain as the center of the being, but our language is still peppered with these ideas about the heart. A lovely and relatively new phrase that Brene Brown has popularized is whole-hearted. Whole-hearted living involves things such as authenticity, vulnerability, gratitude, cultivating creativity. Whole-hearted.
A key part of Jesus’ teaching is how he orders treasure and heart. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The order implies that the place where we put our treasure – our resources, our time, our relationships, our money – is the place our heart ends up. In this arrangement, our heart follows rather than leads our treasure.
For where you put your money, there you mind will go.
For how you use your time, there your temperament will be formed.
When I think about how this has played out in my own life I think about how purchasing our first house elevated my awareness of the surrounding area — the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati, uncoincidentally on the same street as Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. All of a sudden, we were invested, and I felt my involvement and interests, and interest, and intelligence and intentions, shaped by that investment. I could sense that happening in a way it hadn’t before. Purchasing real estate is a big decision. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I also think about our girls entering school. When your treasured children walk out the door to be instructed in another setting, your heart follows close behind. And it goes not only with them, but the heart becomes all the more wrapped up in the well-being of that classroom, and that particular school, and that particular school system. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
There’s a story in the book of Jeremiah where the relationship between treasure and heart shows up. For years, decades, Jeremiah had been preaching the unpopular message of Jerusalem’s destruction. And now, that day had arrived. The Babylonians, under the direction of King Nebuchadnezzar, have surrounded the city and put it under siege. The city walls will be breached, its buildings leveled to the ground, the holy temple plundered and burned, its treasures carried off to Babylon, the princes captured and executed, the king and other city leaders and nearly all the people forcefully marched away in exile, carried off to Babylon.
Jeremiah was the prophet of doom who warned about all this.
But he was not without hope for the future. He also prophesied a restoration. And in Jeremiah 32 we read an account of him putting his money where his mouth was, firmly planting his heart in the Judean soil.
In the middle of the siege we get this rather detailed account of a real estate transaction. King Zedekiah of Judah is convinced Jeremiah is going to defect to the Babylonians, so he has him imprisoned in the king’s palace. Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel finds Jeremiah and asks him to buy his field in their ancestral area of Anathoth just east of Jerusalem. We’re not told what prompted Hanamel to make this request, but the Torah taught that if someone was in dire need and had to sell off land in order to survive in the moment, that it fell to the nearest family member to purchase that land to keep it in the family. The right of redemption – the obligation of redemption.
Buying land in a war zone is not exactly a good investment. But Jeremiah had received a vision from God telling him to make the purchase. So he does. And the text is very careful to give us an almost play by play account of this economic exchange. The deed is signed and copied, by hand of course, with witnesses. One of the copies is sealed and one left open for quick reference. The money is weighed and exchanged. Both deeds are carefully placed in an earthen jar for preservation. It is an official, genuine, legal exchange of property, with the papers to prove it. Cousin Hanamel gets the silver, Jeremiah gets the family land about to be abandoned. The point of the act is not for Jeremiah to buy low so he can sell high. It will not be appreciating in his lifetime. It is portrayed in the text as a symbolic prophetic action. The sequence continues with Jeremiah 32:15 stating, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” This is followed up with a prayer by Jeremiah, now crying out to God because he’s pretty sure he’s just made the worst investment of his life.
Just as soon as his street cred as a prophet is assured with Jerusalem’s destruction, he again looks like a fool, asked to invest in a restoration yet to come. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be. Jeremiah will end his days exiled down in Egypt, but his heart, his longing heart, was camped out by his treasure in the depopulated fields of his kindred.
It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to the present moment. Many hearts have followed much treasure along the way. And there has been much plunder.
Between Jourdon Anderson’s letter suggesting reparations from his old master – 1865 – and James Forman’s Black Manifesto demanding reparations from white churches and synagogues – 1969 – there was this map, and more real estate transactions that affected treasure and heart. This map was first published in 1936 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a creation of the US Congress. The goal was to help households refinance troubled mortgages during and after the Great Depression. To do this Columbus and other cities across the US were split up into these four color coded categories with green considered the most desirable and safest areas to issue mortgages and other kinds of loans, and red considered the least desirable, highest risk mortgage. Black neighborhoods were famously redlined. Then and in the decades that followed as this became an entrenched practice, they didn’t receive the kind of mortgage and business and credit financing that enabled ownership and wealth building in other communities. Neighborhoods with recent immigrants, even some recent European immigrants were also downgraded.
The colors on that map don’t directly correspond to racial or economic distributions in Columbus today, but they are a key part of the story. Needless to say, redlining is another layer in the painful history of masterhood, and treasure acquired by some and denied to others. I did zoom in on the map online and note that Columbus Mennonite Church is located in one of the few green zones. And so I wonder, Does that mean something to us now, and if so, what is that?
It would be one thing if this was a situation where we had personally wronged someone and could make amends. We would get a letter from our Jourdan Anderson outlining the extent of the damage, the treasure we have accumulated at the other’s expense, and the address we can mail the debt we owe. It would be hard to swallow, but specific and concrete. An act of reparations.
And there might be interpersonal situations like this we need to attend to.
But it all feels so much more subtle and elusive than that. Redlining is no longer legal, but its effects are everywhere. And if you’ve considered buying a home you’ve likely wrestled with all the factors of meeting your own needs and living out your values, and how zip codes are still coded with the opportunities and deficits we’ve inherited from the past. Schools, for example. And then there’s this cycle that gets perpetuated. For where you treasure is, there you heart will be also?
Treasure is segregated, which means there’s always the danger of our hearts being segregated. This is one of the great spiritual challenges of our time. How to live in a time of treasure segregation without this encompassing the condition of our heart – our ability to see, the intentionality with which we go about our relationships, our intelligence and ability to understand others experiences, taking concrete actions to right past wrongs. Our longing to live whole-hearted lives, in the pattern of Jesus, is frequently an act of resistance to the patterns so readily available to us.
I truly believe and hope that this awareness and consciousness we’re trying to develop together can be a source of empowerment rather than guilt and disempowerment. We have treasure. And we have heart. There are ways that each of us can follow the cues of Jeremiah and invest in restoration. It can be as simple as deciding to frequent a black owned business. Or, like Barb Gant who bought 50 Black Lives Matter yard signs and has made them available at the church. When I asked her how much I owe her she said, “Nothing. Everyone can do something and this is one thing I’m doing.” If the saying of Jesus holds up, when we intentionally put our treasure toward the restoration, then something wonderful and life-giving happens to our own hearts. We sense and see new things, we think new thoughts, love gives birth to love, and we get glimpses of the great restoration yet to come.
August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,