Being present is all the rage these days. If you don’t believe me, just go check out the self-help section of any bookstore, or drop in to a yoga class, or read a lifestyle blog. We’re constantly being reminded to put down our smartphones, to stop and smell the roses, to be where we are, to engage the people we’re with. My stepson liked to recite a line from that great source of spiritual wisdom, the movie Kung Fu Panda – “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.” It’s not a bad thing, of course – presence and mindfulness are good things, and have deep connections to our Christian faith. If you’re not familiar with the book of Jeremiah, though, you might mistakenly think that today’s reading from Hebrew Scriptures is simply yet another exhortation to mindful presence. “Build houses and live in them,” he writes, “Plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Our ears might hear echoes of the trendy think pieces extolling the spiritual benefits of gardening, or eating locally grown produce, or decluttering, a la the bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which bids readers to declutter their homes in silent contemplation, thanking each discarded item for its service. But there’s something much more complex happening here.
Jeremiah is not just a book of general spiritual advice. Rather, Jeremiah was a prophet who spoke God’s word to the Israelite people before and during the Babylonian exile. In the first part of the book, Jeremiah rails against the Israelites, calling them to renewed faithfulness to God and threatening doom and destruction if they don’t repent and amend their ways. But then, the Babylonian empire sacks Jerusalem, destroys the temple, and takes the Israelites into exile. Jeremiah’s most dire predictions have come to fruition, and the tone of the book shifts. The section that today’s passage is drawn from is part of a larger account. False prophets arise, promising the exiled Israelites that in less than two years, God will vanquish the Babylonians and return the Israelites to their homes. Jeremiah speaks out against these false prophets who are giving the people false hope that everything will go back to the way it was.
The word that Jeremiah sends to the Israelites might sound wholesome, but it would have been a bitter pill for them to swallow, especially compared to the false promises of a quick and easy resolution of their plight. “Build houses and live in them,” he writes. In other words, settle in, because you’re going to be there for a while. “Plant gardens and eat what they produce” – start building a life for yourself there; this isn’t some temporary situation where you can make do with Hot Pockets and ramen noodles and fast food; you’re going to be there long enough to grow tomatoes and eggplants and beans. “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters” – not only are they going to be there long enough to plant gardens, they’re going to be there long enough to raise children and see them have children of their own. “Multiply there and do not decrease” – he urges the exiles to grow and flourish in the midst of adversity. And then comes this verse, which would have been most shocking to the exilic community: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
The Israelites, in the midst of exile in Babylon, are bidden to work and pray for Babylon’s shalom — its peace, its wellbeing, its wholeness. They are urged to seek the shalom of the city of their colonizers, their oppressors, the city of the people who burned their homes to the ground and carted them away into captivity. It cannot have been an easy message to hear — just think of the reading we heard last week, from Psalm 137, with its longing for revenge: “ Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The Israelites, in the midst of their anger and sorrow and thirst for vengeance, are called to work and pray for the shalom of the city where they are in exile. They are commanded to put down roots, to settle in, to go about the business of finding a new normal, and they are even commanded to pray and work for the wellbeing of the very community that attacked and destroyed their holy city.
It is a challenging, but important, word for any of us who have ever found ourselves in circumstances we could never have imagined and would never have chosen. We may never know the pain and loss of exile, but perhaps we do know some of the disorientation of the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, or a move out of a beloved apartment or neighborhood. We all know what it is to find ourselves looking regretfully to the past, wishing things had gone differently, or anxiously toward the future, hoping that if we grit our teeth through our current circumstances long enough, things will start to improve on their own. Perhaps many of us know what it is to find ourselves in circumstances where we feel trapped, wronged, and resentful. In those moments, Jeremiah has a challenge for us: can we live out our call as Christians in the midst of those difficult circumstances? Can we bring into those situations our Christian values of grace and mercy, justice and joy? Can we be people who celebrate the abundant life that Jesus offers, no matter where we find ourselves?
Five hundred years after Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, Jesus would teach, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” His message was revolutionary, but it was not new; the same call echoes through Jeremiah’s letter, as he urges the Israelite exiles to pray for the city of Babylon and to seek its welfare. The challenge is to return violence with peace, hate with love, destruction with creation. It’s not about being passive pushovers; it’s about resistance: it’s about refusing to be defined by the harm that has been perpetrated against you. It’s about demanding to be defined by who you are, and who God has made you to be.
And that is a challenge that speaks to us as individuals, us as a community, us as a society. In the midst of this election cycle, can we resist hateful and dismissive rhetoric, even against those whose positions are hurtful and harmful? Can we live out our Christian values of love, justice, and reconciliation in this moment, rather than waiting to see what November brings? Can we be truthful and loving, resisting cheap shots and easy snark?
To our congregation, too, Jeremiah has a word of challenge. A couple years ago, we thought we had decades ahead of us at 2504 Broadway. Now we find ourselves in a time of transition, wondering what the future will bring and when this place or someplace will truly feel like home again. We are not called to stasis in this physical space, of course. But we are called to live out our call as a church in the here and now, not to put our mission and ministry on hold until things feel more stable. How can we be God’s church in this time and place? In the midst of a transition we did not choose, we are called to live out our faith in a God who is always on the move, bringing redemption out of hurt, creation out of destruction, life out of death.
An episode of the radio show This American Life tells a remarkable story of a community working to live their values in the midst of crisis. In China, in World War II, the invading Japanese army conquered land that included a school for English-speaking children of American and British missionaries and other foreign workers, and about 150 children were sent to an internment camp along with their teachers. One of the children, Mary Previte, who now lives in New Jersey, tells the story of the Girl Guide troop (the British version of Girl Scouts) that the adults formed and led even as they were housed in unheated barracks, fed meager portions of grain meant for livestock, and living in fear of starvation or execution. The logbook of one of the adults shows some of the improvised camp songs that the adults wrote and led the children in, trying to make the best of their circumstances: “We might have been shipped to Timbuktu, we might have been shipped to Kalamazoo. It’s not repatriation, nor is it yet starvation, it’s only concentration in Chefoo.” Previte recalls the leaders’ insistence that the girls eat with proper table manners, do the daily good deed that scouting requires, and abide by the same standards of honor and integrity that all scouts uphold. She even remembers the practice of singing hymns that shaped and sustained her. She recalls: “one of the things that we sang… was the first verse of Psalm 46. ‘God is our refuge, our refuge and our strength. In trouble, we will not be afraid.’ All of these words,” she continues, just sung into our hearts. That sticks. It’s like you’ve got a groove sticking in the gramophone record: I am safe. I am safe. I am safe.” In the midst of horrifying circumstances, a small group of elementary school teachers made the decision not to be defined by their circumstances, to insist that they and the children in their care would be people of faith, joy, and integrity.
Jeremiah’s words are not about table manners and daily good deeds, but they are about how we conduct ourselves when everything we hoped for and expected has fallen apart. Jeremiah exhorts them, and us, to live out of faith, not out of fear. He urges them, and us, to find ways to be the people, the community, we are called to be in the here and now, rather than waiting for more favorable circumstances. He urges us to be defined not by what has been done to us, but by the God who made us and loves us and is working for our welfare. He urges us to seek the shalom of this bitterly divided nation, the shalom of this struggling city, the shalom of the communities with whom we share this building, the shalom of the ones who surround us, whether they have helped us or harmed us. And he promises us that when we do, we will find shalom.
Thanks be to God.