Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Seek the Welfare of the City

Blessings to you this week. Please feel free to leave a comment about this or any of the sermons! — RJE

Seek the Welfare of the City

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: October 14, 2007

Almost 600 years before the birth of Christ, a traumatic series of events overwhelmed the tiny kingdom of Judah. Just over two hundred years before, their kindred tribes to the north in the kingdom of Israel, had been conquered by the Assyrian empire, and the much of the population of the kingdom was taken away from Israel by force, never to return. There were many in the remaining kingdom in the south, in Judea, who thought this demonstrated their superior faithfulness in Jerusalem and in their temple there. For over 200 years there continued to develop this sense of the invincibility of the people of God who worshiped in Jerusalem, demonstrated in the language of Psalm 48:

Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain,
beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
Within its citadels God
has shown himself a sure defense.

As we have heard, so have we seen
in the city of the LORD of hosts,
in the city of our God,
which God establishes forever.

Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
He will be our guide forever.

Then in 597 B.C., Jerusalem itself was conquered by invaders from the emerging empire of Babylon. The unthinkable had happened, the citadels within which God had shown himself a sure defense — as the Psalm declared — lay broken down, the temple ransacked, the king and a group of leaders carried off to Babylon to begin a life of exile there.

Some who remained in Jerusalem had the presumption to read into these events a confirmation that only some in Judah had been subject to God’s judgment, and they were those who had been taken away. There were those in exile in Babylon, now contemplating their disrupted lives who wondered what a people of God should do and be when they are no longer in the land they believed God set aside for them.

It was in response to the erroneous judgment of those remaining self-righteous ones in Jerusalem, and to offer pastoral comfort to those now in Babylon that Jeremiah wrote his letter. Listen for its word: (Read Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7)

I’d like to focus today especially on the last verse of the reading: “ 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.”

Have you ever known an experience of exile? I know of quite a few folks who have had direct experience of being torn from their homes and their homeland, and who one day found themselves making new lives here, in a country of totally different language and custom. And for those of us whose experience has not been so dramatic, think on times when you may have found yourself in an entirely new situation — perhaps a military assignment sent you to a far-off land for an indeterminate amount of time, or it could be that in pursuing an education, you had to go to a far-off city and live among strangers, or when you awoke among the unfamiliar equipment and people of an emergency room in a hospital, or were sent to camp for three weeks as a child, or lost a job, or a spouse, or health itself. Exile comes in many forms. I still remember the day I crossed the Mississippi River on my way to what seemed like exile for 3 years of seminary in New Jersey, and I shed tears of loss thinking of the friends and family I was leaving so far behind. The word of Jeremiah can be addressed to just such experiences.

Seek the welfare of the city...the shalom, the wholeness of the place where you find yourself. The word in the Hebrew Bible here — shalom — means more than peace, more than welfare, it suggests a total sense of well-being. The task of the people of God in any place is to look to the well-being of that place and the people we share a place with.

Now, why would this not come naturally? Anyone who has observed immigrant groups knows the tendency of like-minds and like-cultures to stick together. This is also true of our own personal or self-imposed exile for education, or when we suddenly find ourselves to be the friendless new faces at work. The human inclination is to seek safety, shelter, to stick with our own, not to venture out and risk the distemper of those we neither know nor understand.

Paradise Road, a 1990s film starring Glenn Close, Julianna Marguilies, and Frances McDormand, told the true story of a group of women who were captured by the Japanese near the beginning of World War II and placed in internment camps for the duration of the war. They had to organize their lives to get along together as best they could, despite sharing no common language, all in a situation where there was a chronic shortage of food, space, potable water, toilet facilities. Many among them were highly educated people from Australia, America, Britain, Holland, Germany, China, Indonesia. Some were teachers, physicians, missionaries. These were often people with high ideals who nevertheless found ways to protect private food supplies or bits of comfort. Often, like any of us, when the going got rough, they did not seek the welfare of the city, but their own welfare and that of their own nationality or language group. And who could blame them, who would behave differently amid similar circumstances?

But Jeremiah says that we must seek the welfare of the city, we must look to that place we share in common even with those who are different than and distinct from what we take ourselves to be. If any people should begin to understand this necessity, it should be the American people. And yet even we need frequent reminders — which often go unheeded — that we must seek the welfare of the city, that each of us must seek the welfare of all of us, if we are to have a corporate life together that is worth living.

Why should we do this? One reason is that — in Jeremiah’s words — it is the place...where I have sent you... The exile in which the ancient Jews found themselves was, in the prophetic word of Jeremiah, an act of God. This is a hard thing: “Where I have sent you.” It is one thing to be able to blame our bad luck on our enemies, or even our own lousy decisions, but to say that in some way the exile we suffer has within it some contact with the intention of God, this is a hard saying. Consequently, much of the time lived in such exile inevitably will be spent in sorting out God’s will from our own in relation to the exile experience. If there is a purpose in exile, surely this must be it, that we seek more fervently than ever the will of God for our existence, and turn toward God with greater hope.

Who is this God who sends us into exile and can find us there? It is the God who finds his people enslaved in Egypt and works among them to resolve their bondage. It is the God who joins his people alongside the banks of the river in Babylon and shares their sorrow. In reality, God can be said to have sent the ruling elite of Jerusalem only because he insisted on remaining God, and their unwillingness to turn their lives in his direction took on the inevitable direction which disobedience brings in the end. Reaping the fruits of their own decisions to defy the power of Babylon, God nevertheless promised to go with them into the exile that lay ahead. The hope that resides in this is that while people may turn away from God, God will not turn away from them. God’s will does not erase reality but seeks to transform it.

...for in its welfare you will find your welfare. This is perhaps the hardest thing: to discover that in seeking the welfare even of the one who oppresses us may reside the only road to our own welfare. I think this correlates directly to such things as a willingness to tax ourselves in a society where the welfare of any depends on the welfare of all, where the education of every child is the duty of every adult, where the safety of every neighborhood is the concern of everyone in the city. It is only in the welfare of all in the city that the welfare of anyone in the city can truly be found.

To do this does not mean taking on the values of everyone else, or watering down our own values any more than did the Jews become Babylonians by seeking the welfare of the place where they found themselves. In a generation’s time, they were back in their homeland, the land of promise. And their survival to that point came largely through they willingness to seek the welfare of the city wherein they found themselves.

To take part in any great work, or small, for others beside ourselves, is to say yes to God’s future in the church and the world, even though we may not live to see entirely what that future will be. It is to say yes to future generations of believers who may occupy pews where we now sit and one day will sit no more, even though we will never know who some of those people will be many years from now. It is to say yes to our city, our place, where the word of God can be established through God’s church for generations yet to come.

Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. And I say, “Amen” to that.