“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-11
29These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take 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. 7But seek 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.
8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The Bible is rich with stories of God choosing people to serve God in the world—Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Samuel, Esther, David, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Andrew and Peter, Mary and Martha, Paul and Timothy. Today’s reading from Jeremiah expands our notion of whom God calls. I would go further to say that it is a call that most, if not all of us, here this morning can identify with. The prophet Jeremiah has written a letter to the political, economic and religious leaders of Israel who were in bondage in the city of Babylon. The first verse of today’s reading provides the historical background to the time of Jeremiah’s writing. The southern kingdom of Judah has been conquered. The city of Jerusalem has been burned to the ground and the temple destroyed. And the political, economic and religious leaders of Jerusalem have been dragged off as captives to the city of Babylon by the conquering king, Nebuchadnezzar. There, in the city of their captors, the former Israelite leaders lifted their voices and wept. There in exile, they began to despair that God would ever deliver them from the hand of their hated captors. It was to those despairing, grieving captives that a letter came from the prophet Jeremiah. And his advice to those exiles is a word you and I need to hear as we seek to be God’s faithful people in this time and place. That letter, and its advice, is what we heard read in today’s lesson.
Before we turn our attention to that advice, I want us to meditate upon what it might be like to be in exile. Imagine if their story was our story: our national government had just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, Cabinet, Congress have all been exiled. All of the financial leaders and artists in New York and the tech workers and religious leaders in the Bay Area are separated from their families and exiled as well. While that seems a bit far-fetched for many of us, consider how the experience of exile hits closer to home to African Americans descended from abducted Africans; or Native Americans living on reservations distant from their ancestral lands. They can identify strongly with the exile context. And let me speak more personally. I was born here to immigrant parents who arrived with falsified documents; so we grew up in constant fear of being exposed and deported. My mother spent several horrible months on Angel Island, living under constant threat of being sent back to China. For most of my parents’ life in this country, they felt like foreigners. They struggled and were frustrated with language barriers. They bore and raised children; and grandchildren who spoke not a word of Chinese. Furthermore, they had parents and brothers and sisters and other family members they never saw again because they were scattered all over the world.
The rise of white supremacy, I’m afraid, can be traced to the fear of being an exile in one’s own country. The term that sends chills down my spine is “white replacement,” a term describing the fear that you have been replaced, that your culture and identity are minimized, that you have been sent into exile. And so immigrants are viewed as a threat; and building walls becomes a campaign promise.
To the terrified and shell shocked exiles, the prophet Jeremiah sent a pastoral letter. The fact that the letter came from Jeremiah was a sign of just how bad things were. While he is one of the major prophets in the Bible, in his time he was a small town boy trying to make it in the big city. And by all apparent measures, he was a failure. Jeremiah was in a position to send this letter because he was left behind in the deportations. The Babylonians did not think he was worth the effort of deporting. Jeremiah was never a formal part of the religious establishment that was deported. He was an outsider prophet. And now he was in a position to serve God by serving the very people who beat, imprisoned, and rejected him. Jeremiah did not occupy one of the prestigious pulpits in San Francisco; rather, he preached out of a store front church.
In verse 10, the Lord’s word to the Israelite political, economic and religious leaders in Babylonian exile is a harsh word. In Jeremiah’s prophecy, God tells them that they will remain in exile for 70 years—or in other words, a LIFETIME! They will not be restored to their precious city of Jerusalem. Likely, neither will their children. Only in their grandchildren is there hope that Israel will once again be restored to their native land.
God then says to Israel’s exiles in the following verse, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” So though Israel’s exiles will remain a lifetime and die in Babylonian exile, God’s plans for them are meant for their good, not for their harm. In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, he tells them to build houses and live in them; to plant gardens and eat what they produce. He tells them to take wives and have sons and daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters and multiply there. After all, they will remain in exile for the rest of their lives.
God then declares to the exiles that God has plans for them. The circumstances that brought Israel to Babylon were that their nation was conquered, their army destroyed, their city razed, their temple burned, that they were bound in chains and marched across the desert to this hated city of Babylon. What are the circumstances that brought us to this foreign land? Why are we here in San Francisco, in California, in the United States? Was it because our parents or grandparents had to escape the dangers of violence and war, to escape famine and poverty? Was it for schools, for work, for friends and family? For me, my circumstance was because I was the child of immigrants. But whatever the reason, these are the circumstances that brought us here, as exiles, to this foreign land; or made to feel like exiles due to the socio-economic and cultural-demographic changes in our native land.
In this passage of scripture, God also makes this startling claim to the Jewish leadership, “You are in Babylon because I, the Lord your God, SENT you here!” You Israelites are in Babylon, not simply because you were conquered, but because GOD WANTS YOU HERE! You are here because God needs His people not only in Jerusalem, the city of God, but in Babylon, the hated city. If there is to be any salvation, any redemption of that city, it will happen only if God’s people are there to make it happen. Israel’s exiles are in Babylon by God’s design and will. God SENT Israel’s exiles to Babylon! So why are we in the United States, in California, in San Francisco, in the Pacific Heights neighborhood? We are here for one reason, and one reason alone. We are here because God has sent us here. We are here by God’s design, by God’s will. The circumstances were the vehicles God used to get us here and hold us here. But we are here because the Lord our God needs us here and has called us here.
What then, are we called to do in the city into which God has sent us? What then is Calvary Presbyterian Church called to do in the city of San Francisco? As exiles in this community—where the cost of living is high, the gap between the wealthy and poor is enormous, where there is a tremendous need for affordable housing combined with a homeless problem—what is God’s mission for Calvary Presbyterian Church? According to Jeremiah, our charge and mission is to “Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile…for in its shalom you will find your shalom.” The shalom of San Francisco—its peace, prosperity, health, well-being, fullness, reconciliation, healing—is our charge and mission. For in the shalom of San Francisco, Calvary will find its shalom. God’s calling to Christians is always to seek and to serve the needs of the city, the community, where we are exiled. We are not called to serve only ourselves, but to serve the community in which we are located.
The following headline appeared on the front page of the September 20 edition of the NY Times, “An Ecological ‘Crisis’ as 2.9 Billion Birds Vanish”. A new study in the journal Science reported that since 1970, nearly 3 billion North American birds have disappeared. It is the proverbial canary in the coal mine story. Birds are an important indicator of ecosystem health, and this study is a powerful signal about the current status of the environment. Two Fridays ago, millions of people, many of them children and teenagers, took to the streets during the Global Climate Strike, the international youth effort started by the 16 year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. She is a modern day Jeremiah. And like the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament, she has been vilified by conservative cable news pundits. Fox News described her as “a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents”. The charge that Jeremiah gave to the exiles in Babylon is the charge we need to hear today from Greta Thunberg. “Seek the shalom of our planet, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.” “How we tend the gardens in our own backyards can make a difference in how we can help birds survive”, writes Margaret Renkl in a recent Op-Ed piece. She offers such suggestions as: maintain a brush pile so songbirds have a place to hide from predators; swear off herbicides and insecticides, in your yard and refrigerator; a chemical free yard provides safe food sources for birds; to protect forests, buy sustainably sourced wood and paper products; keep house cats indoors, even well-fed cats kill birds; eliminate single-use plastics, many of which end up in the oceans, where seabirds consume them at lethal levels.
The Bible is full of stories of God calling people to serve God in the world. In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, we hear God’s call to us today. We are called to seek the peace and well-being of the city—whether it is providing sanctuary for immigrants, collaborating with partners striving to break the cycles of poverty, serving the marginalized, preaching God’s word, or how we tend the gardens in our own backyards. God has sent us here to work for shalom. For in the shalom of our city and our planet, we will find shalom.