A sermon preached on September 25, 2016 based on Jeremiah 29:1,4-8 by Rev. Michael Precht.
Scripture - Disturbing hope: Settle down in Babylon
The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.
"The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. Don’t pay attention to your dreams."
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-8 Common English Bible (CEB)
Embrace the… soil
Wendell Berry was one of the up-and-coming young writers in America. He had left behind the small town of fewer than 200 people - Port Royal, Kentucky - where he had grown up. He had gone to college, and then gone on to New York where he got a teaching job at one of the prestigious universities there. He had published his first novel and also had gotten on as a regular feature writer at some of the best magazines. The track was laid out for him to become one of the great writers in American letters. But the more he wrote and the more he shared, the more he was encouraged and pushed along in that track, the more he realized that he was telling the stories of Port Royal. And the more that he told of those stories, the more he came to feel that he was stripmining hishometown - taking what was best of it and sharing it with others, while contributing very little back into the place.
So he made the decision early in his life to move back to this little town in Kentucky, and he made the decision that alongside his writing and his teaching he would farm the family land which had fallen into disrepair and was in bad need of restoration. For last 50 or more years he has had this combined vocation of farmer and teacher and writer, and he once had this to say about how it has been a slow and patient work:
“During the last 17 years . . . I have been working at the restoration of a once exhausted hillside. Its scars are now healed over, though still visible, and this year it has provided abundant pasture, more than in any year since we have owned it. But to make it as good as it is now has taken 17 years. If I had been a millionaire or if my family had been starving, it would still have taken 17 years. It can be better than it is now, but that will take longer. For it to live fully in its own responsibility, as it did before bad use ran it down, may take hundreds of years.”
The old saying says we should “bloom where we are planted” but what do we do when we areplanted in soil that is worn out and eroded, soil that is washed away by bad use? What should we do when it seems as if it has no nourishment to give us? Well, Wendell Berry said for him, there was nothing to do but to embrace the soil.
Jeremiah has a similar word the people of Israel, who are no longer in the land of Israel and who have been sent into exile in the city of Babylon. If you're not familiar with the story of the exile, let me give you a quick refresher. It was one of the two greatest crises in all the history of the people of God - along with their slavery in Egypt. You see, the people of Israel understood that they had been sent to a promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. They understood that it was their inheritance and it was God's provision for them. It was the place that was for their good and their prosperity. But when when they arrived there, they soon forgot how to use their prosperity, and they forgot what they were meant to be. God had said that Israel would be a great nation so that it could be a light to all nations, a representative and a sign of the one true God.
Israel was supposed be the one people in all the world who worshipped the one true God. But God had to send them prophet after prophet, telling them again and again that they had lost the plot.
The prophets say it again and again: “Change your ways, the doom is coming.”
I know we have many, many words of the prophets and the records of many separate different prophets, but I’m going to be bold enough to sum up the words of all the prophets in essentially two rules that they kept bringing to the people of Israel.
First, the prophets said, “You gotta stop worshiping idols! You were called to be the people of the one true God, your were called to put your trust solely in God, no matter how effective powerful or enticing the idols of other nations may seem. You depend on God and God alone.”
The second word that the prophets brought again and again and again was, “You’ve gotta stop oppressing the poor. You have to be a people of justice where one’s status does not influence one’s ability to receive justice in the courts, and the right to glean from the prosperity of the fields.”
Different prophets hammered home these two themes with with different emphases - Elijah and Elisha hammered home the theme of idolatry, while Joel and Amos championed the plight of poor. Still, these two themes come up again and again and the prophets consistently say “If you do not change, the doom is coming.” But then we get to Jeremiah who had a slightly different theme.
Jeremiah spent his entire career as a prophet saying the “doom is coming.” Full stop.
Jeremiah understood that the time for change was past, the die was cast. He said “You have forsaken your birthright; you have given up on being the people of God, so God is going to have to do something radical. God is going to send a nation called Babylon, and they're going to take you into exile, and you will be taken from the land that was meant for your good, and you will live as strangers in a strange land.”
This was a crisis for the Jewish people. They wondered, “Who are we if don't have the land anymore; can we be the nation of Israel without the land of Israel?” Once the doom came and they were in exile, even then there were some would be prophets who said “Surely there is some mistake; surely what we should be doing is fighting against Babylon; we should be fighting against our oppressors. We need to get back to where we were!”
And to these false prophets, Jeremiah says today: “Simmer down. Build houses.”
Jeremiah says “Settle down in the land where you are now, in the land of Babylon. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children - there in Babylon. Help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands so they may have children - children born in Babylon. Give up on your dreams of return.”
Now, when most Christians these days say “we want to hear from a prophet,” this is not what we mean. What we want when we ask for a prophet is we want someone to come give us a vision of how it is we get back to where we were, a vision that says “Don't you worry; just one quick fix and you’ll beback in the promised land, back in the fullness of glory.” Jeremiah says “Don't worry, you're going to get those kind of prophets but don't listen to the them. Don’t listen to the diviners who sell you on their visions.” Jeremiah says “Give up on that dream. Settle in. Build houses and establish your families in Babylon. Cultivate gardens. Embrace the soil.”
You see, ancient Israel's recurring failure was its continued insistence on living independently of God and each other. Instead of worshipping only the one true God, they brought in a few other gods and idols, just to hedge their bets. Instead of looking out for the welfare of each other, they assumed that it was unavoidable that the prosperity of some would come at the expense of the others. And so God sends them to a place of dependency, and God says through the prophet Jeremiah today: “I want you to live as if your future depends upon Babylon. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray for it to the Lord, because your future depends on its welfare.”
We do not particularly enjoy being dependent, but if we follow Christ we find ourselves being thrown into situations of dependency, some that even feel like an exile. Imagine how good it must've felt for the disciples to be called by Jesus in the very beginning - to feel that perhaps they now had everything taken care of. After all, this is a master who owns the wind and the waves , a man who could feed them all with just a few loaves and fishes. Surely every need would be provided for them, and they would never be dependent on anyone else again. But then comes the day when Jesus sends them out as missionaries. He says "Go out there, two by two, go to all the cities. And when you go, don't take a satchel to hold supplies; don't take food or money. Carry your walking stick, and the clothes you are wearing and the sandals on your feet. When you arrive in the city, declare to them 'the peace of the Lord be with you' and if they will receive that and receive you, then dwell in that place and live on their hospitality. But if not, don't waste your time judging them - calling down fire from heaven, shouting at them. No, just knock the dust off your feet and keep going. Keep going, because you've got to find a city, you've got to find folks who will give you something to eat!"
Jesus sends his disciples out on this mission, and he sends them entirely dependent upon the grace of God and the good grace of the cities in which they find themselves. You see our salvation is not a status that we achieve and then we just hang on to it for our own personal benefit. Our salvation begins with the status; it begins by being claimed as children of God, people of God. But salvation continues with a sending. We go out into the world, and we become ever more dependent upon God and upon our neighbors.
That is to say, we cannot save ourselves; our salvation is always by grace. And the grace of God usually comes by means of a neighbor
"Promote the welfare of the city; pray as if your future depends upon it."
I think many of us suspect that the world around us doesn't much care for the welfare of the church. Now, don't get me wrong; somewhere around 73% of the nation in which we live identify themselves as Christians. But my generation is decreasingly involved in faith and in the church, involved at a lower rate than any generation, except for the one that's coming up behind us. (Incidentally, these numbers only hold true among white people, for some reason all other racial and ethnic groups seem to have seen their church participation remain the same or even increase). It seems that the mainstream church of the US doesn't quite have the status that it once did. It used to be that we could count on everybody around us to can help us out a little bit. The TV stations wouldn't counter-program Sunday morning - maybe they'd run the test pattern or something really boring. It used to be that the communities and institutions around us would even leave Wednesday night open just so we could double dip our time with the people of God. It used to be that we watched the popular entertainments - music, art, film, whatever - of the world, and we counted on them to be policed by the expectations of the broader society, which would more or less be in line with the church's standards of what is good. Those days are gone.
It seems like we don't have the status that we once did, but of course we had to admit we did no issues that status for the good of our neighbors. If you look back to find the period of the highest church attendance in the United States it would be in the 1950s. Of course that was not a time in which we look back now and think that the mainstream church was going out of its way for the sake of all its neighbors. At least, those us us who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama know otherwise. I can tell you the churches that were planted as a response to integration; the churches that were planted to say "No, this is really not for every body but just for those we prefer. We'd rather choose our neighbors for ourselves."' Some scars take a really long time to heal. Some of their effects take a long time to show up.
The question that many who have left the church are wondering is "What does the church miss most?" Do we miss our status, or do we miss our neighbors? Do we miss people who bear the image of God, or do we miss running things? Are you dreaming of the prophetic visionary who is going to come back and put you back on top, or do you love your neighbor as if your future depends upon their welfare?
Every so often, someone comes to me and asks, "How do we reach __________?" You can fill in that blank with some demographic, some neighborhood, some age group, or people from a certain part of the country that have moved here. I read Jeremiah, and I come to this conclusion - we will reach people when we are dependent upon them. We will reach them when we are convinced that we don't truly know God until we know our neighbor. We will reach our neighbor when we are convinced that there is something about them that they can show us, something about God that we cannot know unless we know them. You will be an effective evangelist when you know that your own welfare depends upon your neighbors'.
Think of the people we know from the exile, the great prophets and heroes like Daniel. We know the story of Daniel in the lion's den, the great Daniel who stood up for his faith in the midst of exile and refused to give up his prayers to God. He never compromised his faith. But do you know what his job was? He was an advisor to King Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, the man who tore his home down and left no stone on top of another. Daniel gave him wise counsel; Daniel helped him work for the good of Babylon. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego distinguished themselves as wise counselors, just as Joseph had done in Egypt. All of these were people committed to the place in which they found themselves. They found themselves in exile but it did not change their essential call - to work for the good of the place in which they found themselves and to live as if their welfare depended on the good of their neighbor.
When you have learned, and I have learned, that our neighbor is God's gift to us, then we also discover we have something to say to them too. My favorite definition of evangelism is "one beggar telling another where to find bread." When we know ourselves to be in need of God's grace and when we are looking for it in the welfare of our neighbor then others begin to realize their need as well.
Jesus put it this way, he said "love your neighbor as you love yourself.' Don'tt just help them; don't just leave them alone, but act as if the good of your neighbor is as imporant as your own welfare and your own life. John Wesley put it a little bit differently, he said "the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion... and there is no personal holiness that is not also social holiness." There is no good for me it is also not for the good of another. The preacher and poet John Donne put it most eloquently and famously, "No man is an island, and any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."
Martin Luther King Jr., drawing upon this deep wealth of Christian tradition, this understanding that none of us is doing this on our own, put it this way: "We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality... what affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."
That is to say none of us is gonna save ourselves.
We will all be saved by grace. And one of God's favorite ways of sharing grace with us is through a neighbor.
Work for the good of your city; pray as if your future depended upon it.
This week I've heard from a pastor I know in Charlotte, North Carolina. All week he has watched his city splashed across the headline news, usually with the word "chaos" in front of it. He said that the first casualty of this week has been the truth. The truth suffers when you hear more about the the two dozen people who came to incite violence, and nothing about the 3000 who gathered in peaceful demonstratoin, begging the others not to erupt. When the truth is a casualty, you don't hear that the police chief in Charlotte is somebody who has been working to repair broken trust in the community and whose own father was killed under questionable circumstances by a policeman. Pastor James Howell said that he has been watching the news and wondering if it's all been for naught, the long years in which he has embraced the soil of the place where he has pastored, all the times that he's reached out to unexpected friends and tried to expand his network. Was it a waste to hold all those joint worship services and joint project with other churches and partners and to hold teaching events and gatherings that tried to work and overcome the scars that existed in the southern cit? He said he watches the news lately and thinks "Surely our race relations are as bad as they've ever been."
He decided to reach out to two friends. One is a conservative rabbi in town whose synagogue has established friendly relationships with the church, and the other friend is an African-American pastor he talks to regularly. Dr. Howell said "As soon as I thought of them, the truth dawned in my embarrassingly dense skull. I realized I have their cell numbers, and I have their love and I have their trust." Whatever else might be going on he realized that they have been tending the soil, and they have between themselves means by which God is going to do the healing. Already they share the slow quiet steady work of tending the soil in which they are planted. Howell continued, saying "I said to [my friend Murray], 'We been working so hard and so long on this stuff, and things are still awful.' He said back to me, "You've got it all wrong; if we had not been doing all that we've been doing things would be in a really much worse mess."
There are times when it seems that the soil is not giving us back everything that we have put into it. There are times we want to burn it all to the ground; we want to run away to greener pastures, but God gives us this promise: Embrace the soil and your gardens will bear fruit. Plant gardens, and they will produce fruit for you to live on. Marry, here in Babylon, and then marry your children off in Babylon, for children will still be born; their numbers will still increase, and you will not dwindle away, even in the place of exile.
And one day every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess in this and every place that Jesus Christ is Lord.
There's no need to dream about what was! We know what will be! We know where all this is going! So let's live as if our future depends on it!
In the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.