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Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
I headed out of Asheville, North Carolina, on Wednesday morning, my vacation and study leave behind me. All that was left between my time away and renewed time with you was the driving, and a lot of it. But I wasn’t quite ready to give up my exploring ways, so I set out on the scenic route.
I was somewhere between Interstate 40 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, headed up and into the highest mountains east of the Mississippi, when I stopped for gas at a mom-and-pop station. Mindlessly, I got out of the car, punched the appropriate buttons on the gas pump, swiped my credit card, made my selection, and removed the nozzle to put it in my tank. And then a funny thing happened.
A message popped up on the display screen of the gas pump. It wasn’t an advertisement or a question about whether I wanted a receipt. It was an invitation to prayer.
“Say a prayer for Jacob Hall’s family, classmates, and the Townsville, South Carolina, community,” it said.
I was stunned; I had never seen such a thing. I was also a little confused; I’d been away from the news for several days and, while I remembered hearing something about a school shooting in South Carolina, I didn’t know the details. But I prayed anyway. Yes, while filling my gas tank in what felt like the middle of nowhere, I stood and prayed for people I didn’t know.
Then I went inside and asked the cashier about it. “His funeral is today,” she said of six-year-old Jacob. “It’s a very sad situation.”
I returned to my car both amazed and grateful that someone had thought to use the screen on a gas pump as a call to prayer, that people cared about this little boy and his family and friends, that prayer could connect me not only to God but to every other person who would pull into that gas station.
As I resumed my drive, I was still feeling the warm fuzzies from this unexpected God moment. “You just never know,” I thought.
And then I saw a Trump-Pence campaign sign on the sign of the road—and another and another and another and another. Until then, I had been struck by the lack signs and bumper stickers I’d seen along the way, no more than 10 in almost 3,000 miles of driving. I had taken that to mean there was very little enthusiasm for either major party presidential candidate. But suddenly there were Trump signs everywhere.
My warm fuzzies evaporated. I started to pick up on other clues suggesting that, at least on matters of religion and politics, my views were very different from many of the people of that place. Where just a few minutes earlier I had felt connected and thankful, I began to feel like an outsider, a stranger in a strange land. If I had been required to stay there, if I had been unable to come back to this place and people that feel something like home, I might have felt like an exile. I might have felt all alone, abandoned by God, afraid, and uncertain of the future.
The experience and history of exile is central to the ancient Jewish identity. Babylon had defeated Judah militarily, and then captured many of the Israelites and marched them to a faraway place (now known as Iraq). For 70 years they were held captive in a land where the language and customs were all foreign to them, where their God was neither known nor worshipped. The temple in Jerusalem, which they understood to be the place where God dwells, had been destroyed. They hardly knew how to practice their religion any more. They were miserable, lost, no longer sure of who they were or whether they had a future. Their captors taunted them, ordering them to act out Jewish customs for their amusement and entertainment.
But how could they sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? they cried. They were bereft. They understood their situation to be God’s doing, God’s punishment for their generations of trusting military might and wealth more than God, for oppressing the poor, and failing to care for the weakest among them. For generations they had ignored the warnings of prophets and preachers, but in exile they understood them to be true. In exile, they wondered if they had any future at all as a people. They wondered if God had abandoned them forever.
Eventually, Babylon would be defeated by Persia, and the exiles would be allowed to return to Israel. But when they got a letter from the prophet Jeremiah, parts of which we just heard, they didn’t know that. At that point, they couldn’t imagine ever being at home again. They didn’t know if they would ever be free again, if God would ever bless them again. They feared for their children and their children’s children.
And then Jeremiah’s letter arrived. Maybe the first people who heard it received it as we often do: rushing ahead to the good parts. Asking to hear over and over the part where God says, “Not to worry, I’m going to bring you back home. I haven’t forgotten my promises to you. I know the plans I have for you, plans for your good, plans to give you a future and a hope.”
For years, Jeremiah had preached judgment and doom, but now he offered a different word. Instead of speaking to the exiles’ fears, he encouraged them to live into the newness God’s faithfulness would provide. It was a hope they could hold onto. And throughout history, Jewish exiles the world over have claimed that promise as their own.
Today we could talk about any number of exile populations—the Syrians and Africans who have been lucky enough to survive ocean crossings and now live in refugee camps or strange countries where they don’t know the language or the customs, where they live in fear of losing their very identities. We could speak of 60 million refugees the world over, of hurricane victims in Haiti. And we would most certainly need to speak of Palestinians, of the cruel irony in which a once-exiled people has pushed another population out of their common homeland. We could consider what God’s promise of a future and a hope might mean for any of these peoples, and we could wonder about our role in fulfilling that promise.
But I want to draw our attention to a different part of Jeremiah’s letter, which is about how to live in the meantime, and to another group of exiles: economic, political, and cultural exiles in our own country. I want to ask us to consider the very real fears of the people who have lost their steady jobs and now can’t find work, or who labor for half their former pay. I want us to try to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who have watched their country change dramatically in recent years—to a place where they may no longer be in the majority, to a place where same-gender marriage is the law of the land, to a place where they feel more threatened than safe. I want us to consider the ways in which we may have become too cozy with the dominant culture and, yes, I want us to try to understand the people who have Trump-Pence signs in their yards.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to stop preaching the dangers of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women rhetoric and bullying. I’m not about to stop preaching that LGBTQ folks and their relationships are beloved of God. I will not stop referring to certain policy positions as the “make America white again” platform. I will not stop trying to get supporters of certain policies and candidates to consider how they could possibly think they are following Jesus when they go down this path. I am certainly not going to suggest that we stop praying about the outcome of this election and for the future of our country.
But no matter who wins the election on November 8, on November 9 we will all awake to a nation that is seriously divided, to a homeland in which a significant portion of the population will feel like exiles. We need to be preparing for that day. We need to consider what it means to live in the meantime.
The natural tendency for the exiled, the downtrodden, the besieged, the people who have lost and lost out, the culture that feels oppressed and opposed, is to hunker down, to circle the wagons, to put themselves first, to refuse to participate in the system they don’t recognize or acknowledge as legitimate, to do everything they can to hang onto the good old days, to bring back the way things used to be.
But Jeremiah, speaking for God, tells the exiles in Babylon to take a very different, somewhat perplexing, tack: /p>
Make yourselves at home in this strange place. Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their yield; get married and make families of all kinds; have children of all gender identities. Don’t let your culture die out, but sow seeds for the future.
And then, comes the strangest word of all: Seek the welfare of the city—this strange place where you are held captive. Build it up. Pray for it even, for it is in its prosperity that you will find your own well-being.
Seek the welfare of the city. It sounds so straightforward, so simple: Invest in the welfare of all. You’ll be better off when everyone is valued and cared for. Consider what’s best for the whole. Don’t let your culture die; be fruitful and multiply. Hang onto what’s best, and work for everyone’s good fortune.
Seek the welfare of the city.
Might this be what some Trump-Pence supporters think they are doing, even as they disapprove of the man at the top of the ticket? How do we live together when we all think we’re seeking the welfare of the city—but in very different ways?
Let us consider how to live in the meantime.
Let us consider the exiles, including the ways and places in which we, too, are exiles. Let us all consider how to live in this scary meantime—not looking out only for ourselves, but seeking the welfare of all.
Let us pray to the Lord on behalf of our troubled nation. Let us pray for compassion and understanding. Let us pray even for those who would condemn us, those who oppose and sometimes taunt or bully us. Let us pray for hearts to welcome the strangers, respect the exiles, to help create a city-state that welcomes all.
Let us pray in our closets and on the sidewalks, at table and at work, even as we’re pumping gas at the Cumberland.
And let us never forget that God has a dream for all humanity: plans for a future with hope.