Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
This past Friday evening, I was with a group of church members in one of the fellowship gatherings being held this fall. We did some self-introductions since we did not all know one another. In those introductions, people began saying when they first moved to Hanover. I noticed something in that exercise – something I’ve noticed before in our church - none of the people gathered that evening had been born and raised in Hanover. I served a church in Wisconsin years ago where it wouldn’t have been possible to gather 14 people together without at least two or more having been born in that community. Moreover, most of the members of that church were part of multiple generations born and raised in the community. One helpful parishioner gave me charts of four family trees. Those four extended families encompassed about 70% of the congregation! Not so in our church or in Hanover at large. Almost all of us came here from someplace else. Of course, unlike the Israelites to whom Jeremiah addressed his words, none of us were forced to come here. We’re not in exile – captured from our homelands and brought to live in this foreign place. This is not an enemy city. Still, I know of only two or three of you who were actually born and raised in the Upper Valley. That makes us a fairly transient bunch. Furthermore, even though we have, almost all of us, come from another place, that other place from which we came is not all that unlike where we now live. The communities from which we moved probably spoke English, took newspapers, had doctors and lawyers and schools and teachers, grocery stores, churches, main streets, political processes, controversies over budgets, property taxes, and how and where to entertain middle school students between 3 and 5:30 on weekday afternoons.
It’s difficult for us to imagine being captured and forcibly moved to a foreign place – a city, let’s say, where the language was close but not exactly the same, where there are lots of sacred places but no place to worship the way you worshipped back home, where you aren’t under arrest exactly, but neither are you free to leave, where you can’t vote, or express an opinion or receive the benefits of representation. Probably the closest similar experience in our country would be the post-slavery years across the south for African Americans. And since most of us know at least some things about that time in our American heritage, we might be able to grasp a deeper understanding why these words if Jeremiah’s were received with such dismay, even horror and rage. Try to imagine the similar circumstances of Jeremiah’s words as if written to the freed slaves of 1865.
The most significant controversy of the time among the Jews was how the Israelites should behave while in exile in Babylonia. So many of them had been forcibly deported, though they were not exactly imprisoned. But neither could they return to their homes. They were strangers in a culture that didn’t hate them so much as ignored them or saw them as the spoils of war. They were isolated yet relatively unrestrained. But they were most definitely, exiled from their home. And because they could see no other possible reason for their captivity, they believed it must be a direct punishment from God. What other possible explanation could there be?
These few verses are part of a larger letter Jeremiah wrote to the Israelites, a kind of pastoral approach, which was unusual coming from a prophet. Other prophets were telling the exiles to resist their captivity, isolate themselves and do not acquiesce to any of the Babylonian ways. Still others promised an immediate deliverance – assuring the exiled Israelites that God would come swiftly and with great vengeance to save them and destroy the Babylonians.
Jeremiah did not promise swift delivery nor did he counsel resistance. Rather, Jeremiah told them make the best of it. Build houses, plant gardens, encourage marriages among your children and have more children and grandchildren. And in one of the most powerful of all decrees from the mouth of God, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” I imagine these would have been difficult words to receive. The Israelites longed for home. Some of the more prescient among them could no doubt see that they would be in exile for a very long time, that many of them would die before returning to their home. I imagine they were bitter, that some of them might have muttered, you build homes, you old prophet. I don’t much care about the welfare of the city that holds me captive.
It would be easy to read into Jeremiah’s words a kind of pragmatism about how to live in captivity. Assimilate, try to get along, make the Babylonians think you’re hard workers and that you share their values for family and productivity. Act like them and you will stay alive and even thrive while you are away. It would be easy to read into Jeremiah’s words an abandonment of integrity, a kind of fraternizing with the enemy that would be difficult for some of us to think acceptable. It would be easy to read into Jeremiah’s words a tone of hopelessness if not faithlessness – that God is not likely to act very soon on your behalf, that deliverance won’t be swift so you might as well make your lives tolerable.
One of my favorite theologians H. Richard Niebuhr, wrote a sentence in his book The Responsible Self (Harper and Row, 1963) that has haunted me ever since I first read it over thirty years ago. Essentially, Niebuhr said that to be faithful requires looking for and trusting that God is at work in all things – all things. It is faithless to think that God is selectively at work – in this political party but not in that one, in that war but not in this one, in the colorful hills of New Hampshire and not in the blood-soaked streets of Kabul, in happy marriages but not in divorces, in successful children but not in angry children, in the resurrection but not in the crucifixion. It is understandable but not faithful, to believe God is at work in us but not in our enemies. Of course, that’s difficult to hear, to accept, to contemplate, maybe even impossible. But it is that for which we must strive, we who have chosen to trust and love God. God is acting in all things, even in exile.
To say that God is acting in all things is not, by any stretch to say that God causes all things. This is such an important distinction and one that requires a good deal of work. Our simplest human emotional need grabs for someone or something to blame when disaster strikes. We want to know who caused this and we will swear to hunt them down and kill them, electrocute them, fill them with poison. That is our basest human instinct. God, who is good all the time, does not visit heartbreak upon human life. No, we do that all by ourselves. But what Niebuhr suggests is necessary for us if we are to mature in our faith, is to seek a faith that assumes that God is active in everything, even the most heartbreaking of all tragedies. God does not cause it, but God is acting in it – in everything, in the tragic and joyous, in murder and birth, in peace and in war, in comfort, even in exile.
So build houses, plant gardens, seek marriages for your children, pray for the welfare of the city of captors, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Do these things, because God loves them too. Amen.