A Sermon for Pentecost 20 (Proper 23C): Jeremiah says
Text: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
The prophet Jeremiah, although he has a great big book in the Old Testament, was not considered a very important person in his community. He was a strange fellow from a Judean backwater (the town from which the failed king Saul hailed) who was an outsider loner prophet as opposed to the insider court prophets who were officially part of the government system.
When the Babylonians under the great king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and smashed up the Temple in Jerusalem in 587 B.C., they took most of the important people - the king and the royal family, the priests, the court prophets, the elders - into exile, deporting them to the city of Babylon.
Some of the other important people they simply killed.
And the unimportant people, the ones who were not part of the ruling elite or the religious or priestly leadership, well, they were left behind in a ruined city within a ruined country with a ruined economy under Babylonian puppet leadership that would exploit whatever resources were left in Judah and haul them off to the great capital city of Babylon.
Jeremiah was one of those unimportant people. While the others were led away to the fantastic City of the Hanging Gardens, Jeremiah and a bunch of other nobodies were left behind.
Jeremiah’s prophecies were not well received by the Judeans. He acted weird and once did some prophetic performance art featuring his underwear. He got into disputes with other prophets, he went around saying that Judah should submit to the Babylonians rather than fight against them because God was acting through the Babylonians and thus there was no use resisting.
This was not a popular position to take. Not surprisingly, he was put in the stocks, imprisoned several times and even thrown into a cistern by government officials.
Jeremiah also felt that God was pressing on him mightily. There were times when Jeremiah just wanted to die, when he wished he had never been born. Jeremiah himself was finally carried off to Egypt with a group of the unimportant Judeans left behind by the Babylonians and apparently died there, perhaps violently.
Anyway, the point is that Jeremiah had not generally ever been the bearer of good news. Unlike Isaiah, Jeremiah seldom had a good word to say about good things that would happen to the people of Israel either now or later. He was just generally a pure prophet of doom.
So perhaps when the exiles in Babylon received this letter from Jeremiah back in Jerusalem, we might imagine that they were filled with foreboding and dread. They may well have imagined that his letter would be just one big “I Told You So.” Because he had told them, again and again, that if they did not turn away from their idolatry, God would lead the great and fearsome Babylonian army against them and that army would destroy their land and their temple and their way of life and cart them off to exile.
Which is what happened.
So there they are in exile and then here comes a letter from Jeremiah, back in Jerusalem. Uh-oh.
But what an interesting letter this is. What an interesting way to say, “you’re not going to be coming back for a long time”. He says, bloom where you are planted, folks. Settle in. Be part of the community - plant, build, make families, enjoy - and make it a good community for everyone so that it will be a good community for you and your children. In the community’s welfare you will find your welfare.
In our history, Christians have sometimes forgotten this message from God about living in exile, away from the promised land. We imagine that our true home is in a better place and this one is just temporary and it’s all going to be made new again anyway, so let’s not get too involved, too invested.
It’s ok if we use up all our resources because we won’t be here long anyway. It’s ok if we sequester ourselves and not be part of the larger community and stay away from people who are not like us because we’re not going to be here long anyway. It’s ok if we pretend we’re not part of the world we live in because our hearts are in another world.
But no, says Jeremiah. You live here now, and it’s by God’s own design. You will live here a long time, as will your children, and their children after them. You are now part of this community; so make it a good one. Make it a good one.
Last weekend I heard the British theologian Giles Fraser, Canon Theologian at St Paul’s in London, talking generally about ethics -
about how to be good, basically. He said that the notion of “the common good” is all but gone in his country - that everyone has their own idea of what good ought to be and so the idea of a larger story of the people as one people instead of a bunch of different peoples no longer resonates in his most pluralistic society.
It’s as if they were back in times of tribalism or the days of the clans, when one simply looked out for one’s own tribe, own clan, and the heck with everybody else.
His own reflection about the subject began with a story about the time he was in Gaza a few years ago with some children who took him to the place where their home had been bulldozed, and as they approached the area, they came under fire. Not used to being shot at, Fraser turned and ran, and only after reaching a safe spot behind a house did he think to see about the safety of the children.
The children, however, were used to this sort of thing, as was the lady who lived in the house he was hiding behind who never even stopped hanging out her washing while the guns were firing, and everyone was ok.
But the whole thing made him think about how he was only interested in looking out for himself in the time of crisis when his better self would have wanted to look out for the children, and not only that but his best self would want to be part of an effort to eliminate places where people are shooting at one another to begin with.
We are Christians in community. Not just our own church community, but the larger community, the one in which we live and work and play and where our children and their children will live and work and play. Given the mobility of society these days and the ability to be connected with those who are not even geographically close to us, the whole world has become our community. A Global Village.
And we are called to work for its welfare, for the welfare of our neighbors, to cultivate and support a community that sustains and nurtures us and all of our neighbors. We don’t just make the best of it, we don’t just do what we think will benefit us, we are to work for the welfare of the whole community.
There are many prophets of doom in our day. There are times when I just turn off the radio and don’t bother to look at the news or read the opinion pages or anything else because it all just depresses me. But the underlying message from the prophet of the God who wants us to have life and have it abundantly is that we need to be involved in making our world a saner, more fruitful, greener, nurturing, peaceful, life-giving place because it’s where we live and where our children will live and where their children will live.
This is where God has put us. And we are to be concerned with the welfare of others, even others not of our own tribe.
Last week we talked about the call to suffer for the Gospel- to suffer for those who are abused and abandoned and hungry and naked and imprisoned and to allow ourselves to be moved to do something to alleviate their suffering. We talked about how this is the mission of the church - to be for others - to bring the body of Christ to wholeness through ministry to others.
Jeremiah’s letter bringing God’s word to the people in exile underscores this. We are bound up in the lives of others, and for the whole community to thrive, then the parts must thrive.
I believe there still is such a thing as the common good. If we are a people of peace, a people of love, a people of acceptance, a people bound to be generous as God is generous, then this is our mission in and our gift to the community at large. To be generous, to love, to accept, to turn our swords into ploughshares and cultivate God’s community in the place where God has put us.
Jeremiah brings a word from the Lord. I have put you in this community. Make it a good one. Make it a good one.