Friday, October 15, 2010

at home in this world (a sermon preached at the upper room chapel in nashville)

Jeremiah 29. 1, 4-7

Jeremiah was a prophet of the sixth century, before Christ. He lived to see the destruction of the temple of God, in Jerusalem, in 587, and his book, the longest among the prophets, took its final form in 560. Jeremiah spoke to a concrete historical situation---one theologian of the last century said that a Christian should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other—and this is the work of a prophet: to hear the voice of God and the cries of the people, to read the signs of the times and to speak the word of the Lord.

Jeremiah’s book is filled with rich imagery. There is destruction, evil, idolatry. There is also denial: everyone shouting “peace, peace, when there is no peace”. The afflicted in body and spirit find no relief: “they have treated the wounds of my people carelessly”, Jeremiah insists. He is an unlikely prophet, he wants to speak the pleasing word, the word that people want to hear, but…God has formed him, from his mother’s womb, for a different purpose; he confesses, there is “a burning in my bones and a fire in my heart”.

Jeremiah would love to tell everyone that it really is fine, it is going to be ok, but he opens his mouth and cries out, to anyone who will listen, “these people are dying, is there no balm in Gilead, is there no physician here?”. He goes to see the potter, working with clay, work that is beautiful and functional, the primary art form of the people, and he can only see God, breaking the people into pieces, like a potter’s vessel”.

The destruction of the temple was obvious, but the people probably preferred denial, and so do we, at times, if we are honest. Jeremiah says, simply, look around, open your eyes. And then he weeps, just as Jesus, who was often confused with Jeremiah, wept over Jerusalem.

After the Babylonians had flattened the temple, they carried the Jews with them into exile, taking especially the royalty and those with artistic and commercial skills that they needed. They ended up in Babylon, located on the Euphrates River, one of the wonders of the ancient world, about 50 miles south of present day Baghdad.

Israel was in a crisis. Do you remember the moving words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. And our tormentors said to us, “Sing us one of those songs of Zion!”. But how can we sing the Lord’s Song in a strange land?”

It is one of the most profound laments in the Bible. We remember that a Bibl placed on the altar of a church in New Orleans ravaged by Katrina was opened to this text: “We sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion….How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Lament. In the Bible, the counterpoint to lament is hope, and so the people await a word of hope from Jeremiah.

Well, Jeremiah sends this word to the exiles, living in Babylon: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters, and watch as they have sons and daughters. Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The NRSV translates the word as welfare, but the Hebrew word is “shalom”. The NIV translates it as “peace and prosperity”, the King James says simply “peace”, the Message “well-being”. Shalom is a rich, Hebrew word that encompasses all of this.

Seek the shalom of the city, for in its well-being you will find your well being. Build houses, marry, give your children in married. “I know you want to come home”, the Lord was saying to them, “but stay where you are, put down roots, take out a long-term mortgage. Bloom where you are planted”.

Years ago there was a popular spiritual that had the refrain, This world is not my home, I’m only passing thru, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. It was a song that expressed both despair and hope. Despair about this world, hope for a better world. Israel despaired of the world of Babylon, they hoped for the better world of the temple, where they would dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

But Jeremiah, the prophet, is of no help. He tells them exactly what they do not want to hear. They want to sing “Babylon is not my home, I’m only passing through”. Jeremiah says to them, seek the well-being of the city for in its well-being you will find your well-being. Your peace depends upon their peace. Your prosperity depends upon their prosperity. Your salvation depends on their salvation.

I remember hearing Ernest Campbell, former minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, preach. Campbell recalled a huge convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city, and the coverage of their gathering by the New York Times. At the end of the three days a reporter interviewed a spokesman for the witnesses, and the reporter commented, “I have been here three days and I have listened to it all and I have “not heard a word about race, not a word about poverty, not a word about the city in which we live”. And the spokesperson replied, “when the house is condemned, you don’t worry about fixing the door, or replacing a broken window”

If the world is condemned, if a people are condemned, we are only passing through. And yet this is not Jeremiah’s word for Judah, or God’s calling to us, for we too, are commanded, in some way, to seek the well being of the city. How do we do this?

I am reminded this morning of the leaderreturned to the words of Reuben Job, and I am reminded of his leadership in this place.

Methodist life was marked by a deep and authentic personal piety that led to a broad and uncompromising social involvement. Methodists were known for their prayers and for their commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. This commitment resulted in persistent efforts to build houses of prayer and worship as well as consistent efforts to visit the prisons, build schools and hospitals, and work for laws which moved toward a just and peaceful social order…Because they took their relationship to Jesus Christ with utmost seriousness, their life of prayer and witness was readily identified and often very contagious as many wanted what Methodists appeared to have. Among these Methodist gifts were a certain knowledge about their own salvation, an at-homeness in this world and confidence in the next, a living companionship with a living Christ, and access to the power of God that could and did transform the most broken and hopeless persons into productive, joyful and faithful. Such was the power of God in the way the Methodists lived…”

To reclaim our identity, three thousand years old in the mind of the prophet, two hundred years old in the practices of our Wesleyan tradition, is to seek the well-being of the city.

God has planted us in this place. God has commanded us seek the shalom of the city, to pray for the city. Being the church in this place has challenges, but also opportunities. We know that cities are mobile. The ministry we offer to some people may bear fruit in the gifts they take to other cities. The ministry we offer to leaders in our churches may bear fruit in the decisions that make in their spheres of influence. The witness we have, a witness for peace, a peace that the world can neither give nor take away, can make life in the city more sane and less stressful, more humane and less brutal. Even if the city is filled with pagans and unbelievers, the Lord said through Jeremiah to the people, love the city, pray for the city. You will find wholeness and shalom and salvation in the process.

I grew up largely with an understanding of salvation that was very individualistic, very personal. This was good, in that I came to believe that God knew me and cared about me. It was not so good in that it did seem to be largely about me. I grew up with the understanding that salvation was something that happened to souls, when your soul was saved it drifted in the air somewhere, above the clouds, toward heaven. This was good, in that it filled me hope, a hope I still claim. It was not so good in that it kept me from paying attention to the earth, which is my home, which has to be more than a place I am merely passing through.

This world is our home, we are not only passing through. God loves this world, God loves this city. And so we dig in, we make the most of where we are, we learn to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. We pray for our city, and seek its shalom. We are in it for the long haul. Someone has said, “even if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today”.

And so let us imagine that the altar call is to go forth from this place into the city, committing ourselves to its well-being. Somehow, our salvation is connected to the salvation of this city.

Sources: Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home. Reuben Job, A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader.


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