It was a difficult sermon to write first of all because I have preached rather infrequently from the Hebrew Scriptures. But more than that it was difficult because though I see the beauty in the text, it is a letter to a people being ethnically cleansed--- and Jeremiah is telling them that it is punishment but that they are to make the best of it and use it for good. It is like all those places in scripture where we read God has a plan for us, and we realize that such a thought is less a comforting thought than a time to question that if God really has these sorts of violent plans for us do we really want to worship that kind of God? And this is not an aspect of the text I confront in this sermon. I chose the text because we use it as the Communities of Shalom scripture. I just say all of that to let you in on the struggle and acknowledge that there is a dark side to this text that I shy away from. What made it easier was using a story I've used in sermons before, but I figured that I might as well reuse my favorite stories now since I won't be able to when I am preaching in the same church every Sunday!
Call to Worship: A Litany of Shalom by Ruth Duck
ONE: Two things we know about the vision of shalom. Shalom is a gift to us from God. And Shalom is our mission.
ALL: Shalom is a personal relationship between God and all God's earthly children.
ONE: Shalom is the home that we seek, the goal of our spiritual journeys, and the valley of our delight.
ALL: Shalom is our sense of security, of being cared for and loved.
ONE: Shalom is the source of our courage and strength for which we so earnestly yearn.
ALL: Shalom is the harmonious relationship with God, which then expresses itself in our thinking, feeling, and doing with ourselves, others, and God.
ONE: Shalom is reconciliation: a body and soul become whole, a house once divided becomes a home again, the lion lies down with the lamb.
ALL: Shalom is justice for all that we so easily forget when we are in control.
ONE: Shalom is our Christ, God's Hoy Child, whom we crucify and bury, but who will not die.
ALL: Shalom is a gift to us from God. Shalom is our mission.
Scripture: Jeremiah 29:4-7 1
(NRSV, adapted: This scripture comes from the prophet Jeremiah. I will be reading from the New Revised Standard Version, but I have adapted it by “untranslating” to include the original word shalom. As we read in the opening litany, the Hebrew word shalom is a rich rich word for which we have no good translation. So we translate it many different ways. The dean of Drew Theological School, Jeffery Kuan, says that shalom is one of those Hebrew words you should never translate because so much gets lost in translation. So look over your shalom litany again and recall those definitions here as I read our scripture this morning.)
Children's Sermon: Check out Enemy Pie by Derek Munson about a little boy who gets rid of his enemy by making him his friend. It fit in well with trying to figure out what it means to seek shalom in exile.
Sermon: Seeking Shalom
Will you pray with me?
We give thanks this morning for this time to come together and worship.
And we ask for you to stand with us today, to let these words from my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts show us what your shalom really means. Amen.
This is a beautiful scripture that we read from the prophet Jeremiah this morning, but it is a difficult one. Sometimes the Gospel stories are difficult because Jesus' time just seems so totally different from our own, so far from our own, but here we are reading something written over 500 years before Jesus' birth! Who was this Jeremiah guy and what was this exile he's talking about anyway? We don't really learn the very ancient history of Israel in one of our high school history classes, after all. So this seems as good a place as any to start to figure out what is going on here.
The book of Jeremiah is Jeremiah's witness to the destruction of Israel by Babylon and the beginning of the Babylonian exile. Jeremiah is a priest, not a bullfrog in case some of you were wondering. For forty years, Jeremiah was a priest and prophet who led Israel, who pastored them through this painful and terrifying period of Israel's history. What we read today is a part of a letter written by Jeremiah to the exiled community, an attempt to breathe a little hope into their despair.
But what Jeremiah tells them is not what they want to hear.
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; multiply there, and do not decrease.
Here the exiles are, waiting. They are waiting to see how God is going to liberate them from their Babylonian oppressors. I imagine them sitting alongside the dusty road, their bags still packed. They are watching, waiting, suspended in the moments since being dumped there in Babylon. But they aren't just waiting for something, anything to happen; no, they are waiting to return to Israel. So when Jeremiah's letter gets to them, when they hear God wants them to settle down, can you imagine their horror? They want to go home, but God is telling them to make this new, foreign place their home by building homes and growing food and getting married. But this is not just any new, foreign place: this is the place of their exile, the home of their oppressors, of their enemies.
Jeremiah's message is not a revolutionary one, folks. Jeremiah wasn't telling the Israelites to stand together and revolt against the tyrants who forced them into exile. That's really difficult for me, personally. I want stories where Moses is standing up to Pharaoh, saying "Let my people go!" I want Jesus in the Temple turning over tables and throwing out the money lenders. But in this particular place and time, God has given Jeremiah another message to share with the exiled community:
Shalom. We have already talked a little about this word this morning (see the litany above). Translators have used all of the following English words to describe shalom: welfare, completeness, to cause to be at peace, to make peace, peace offering, at rest, at ease, secure, safe, to prosper, to be whole.2 And it is this word heavy with meaning for holistic living, peaceful living that Jeremiah uses here in his letter to the exiles. He is not saying, just build houses and duck your heads down and plow on ahead through the exile: he is saying build houses and while you do, build God's beloved community right there in exile. Rather than longing for the past, rather than waiting for God to do something Exodus-style like send plagues upon the enemy until they throw in the towel and send the Israelite's back to their homes, Jeremiah called the exiles to live as God’s people where they find themselves, whether it is a time and a place and a circumstance of their own choosing or not.3
Not many of us today in this room this morning know the pain of exile the way these Israelite's did. Dr. Wil Gafney, translates verses two and three of this chapter, which we didn't read this morning because the names are unfamiliar and a little confusing, into our own terms: "Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady, Cabinet, and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh were separated from their families and exiled as well." We have not experienced such an upheaval here in Delta, though there are so many places around the world suffering such a fate. Many of us have roots deep in Harford County and South Central Pennsylvania and cannot imagine building house and planting gardens elsewhere.
But I think perhaps we know what it is like to feel isolated and alone, to feel that all of what we were certain of has been taken away whether through our own sin or someone else's, or just some catastrophe. Some of us know what its like to live in a hostile environment, as well, whether it be in our own home or in our neighborhood. Often, it is easy to just put our heads down and plug along. It is easy to keep isolating ourselves.
So when we read Jeremiah, it speaks to us even though we are outside of this context of exile. When we read Jeremiah's letter and see God calling us out to live in community, we want to be incredulous, check God's forehead to see if God's sick, you know? It is just a crazy thing to demand of us, to go out and build community among people we don't even know or even consider to be enemies. But here we are, sitting around miserably as those exiled Israelites were on the side of the road, bags still packed, and we realize that we have to make a change in the way we have been living or we will continue to be miserable.
As Christians, we are a people called to abundant living as Jesus said in John 10:10, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." God through Jeremiah was calling the Israelites to abundant living too. That's what shalom is about; shalom is abundant living. It is about looking at the circumstances around us and instead of retreating inside ourselves, shutting ourselves off from everyone around us, we live as God's people by building God's beloved community.
One of the stories I keep coming back to that really illustrates for me this call from Jeremiah to seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom, comes from Peter Storey, a Methodist Bishop from South Africa. Many of you may remember apartheid in South Africa, the racist system of white governance over the majority back Africans. It was a terrorist government, really, forcing all people, black and any whites who thought the system was wrong, to live in fear. Hear this story from Bishop Storey in his own words:
"I once received a phone call," Bishop Storey writes, "in the early hours of the morning telling me that one of my black clergy in a very racist town sixty miles from Johannesburg had been arrested by the secret police. I got up and drove out there, picked up another minister and then went looking for him. When we found the prison where he was and demanded to see him, we were accompanied by a large white Afrikaner guard to a little room where we found Ike Moloabi sitting on a bench wearing a sweatsuit and looking quite terrified. He had been pulled out of bed in the small hours of a freezing winter morning, and dragged off like that. I said to the guard, 'We are going to have Communion,' and I took out of my pocket a little chalice and a tiny little bottle of Communion wine and some bread in a plastic sachet. I spread my pocket handkerchief on the bench between us and made the table ready, and we began the Liturgy. When it was time to give the invitation, I said to the guard, 'This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so.' This must have touched some place in his religious self, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly. I consecrated the bread and the wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to come to life a little. He could see what was happening here. Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike because one always gives the Sacrament first to the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters— the ones that are hurting the most— and Ike ate and drank. Next must surely be the stranger in your midst, so I offered bread and the cup to the guard. You don’t need to need to know too much about South Africa to understand what white Afrikaner racists felt about letting their lips touch a cup from which a black person had just drunk. The guard was in crisis: he would either have to overcome his prejudice or refuse the means of grace. After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face. Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said, 'In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace,' and very stiffly, the guard reached out his hand and took Ike’s, and there we were in a little circle, holding hands, while I said the ancient words of benediction, 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.'"5
This story for me is evidence of what living shalom looks like in exile. It isn't about giving in, but it isn't about taking up arms either. It is about finding your shalom by praying for your enemies and by helping them find theirs. Here, the Bishop was a patient teacher of this white Afrikaner guard, seeking his own shalom and Ike's shalom through leading the guard to live more abundantly. Despite the horror of the apartheid system, the Bishop used such a little action, communion--- a simple life-giving action like building houses, planting gardens, and getting married--- to act our what it looks like to be part of God's people even in an ugly time. This is an example for us as we seek our shalom wherever we are. Again, we see how we are called to live as God’s people wherever we find ourselves, whether it is a time and a place and a circumstance of our own choosing or not.6
We see this morning in Jeremiah, in this example from Bishop Storey, our interconnectedness, which is where the revolutionary message is in this text. This is a new way of living for us, this way of shalom, and it is counter to the way we have been living. And those of you who have heard about Communities of Shalom, the grassroots, faith-based, community development network, know that this is what we are trying to do. We recognize that to live abundantly as Jesus called us, we can't just sit at home, or go to church, without reaching out to the community around us, without actively praying for them, building relationships with them, learning to love them until there isn't an us and them anymore, there is just one community.
Let us pray,
We give thanks for the opportunity to glimpse your message of love this morning.
Pour your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, enable us to live out that message,
to seek the shalom of the city wherever we are,
to be the people of God in all times and places. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
1Jeremiah 29:4-7, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006).
2Robert C. Linthicum, Building a People of Power: Equipping Churches to Transform their Communities (Federal Way, WA: World Vision Press, 2005), 5.
3From The Voice Institute, 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 October 2010, http://www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper23ot.html
4From Wil Gafney, WorkingPreacher.org, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, 10 October 2010, Commentary on Alternate First Reading, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=10/10/2010
5Peter Storey, "Table Manners for Peacebuilders: Holy Communion in the Life of Peacemaking," Conflict and Communion: Reconciliation and Restorative Justice at Christ's Table, ed. Tom Porter (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2006), 61-62.
6Again, from The Voice Institute, 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 October 2010, http://www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper23ot.html