Last week we were in Lamentations, mourning the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian armies in 586 BC and all that went with it: the destruction of the temple, the sacrament of God’s presence, the end of Davidic rule, the end of what was left of national sovereignty. Today, fast forwarding, we’re with that group of survivors who’d been escorted to Babylon.
Those survivors: so vulnerable to con artists and false prophets. “The Lord’s going to smite Babylon and bring us back this week. Don’t unpack.” And their vulnerability, rather like ours. Recent decades have us going through profound changes: the non-Hispanic white population percentage is shrinking; the Census Bureau estimates it’ll be around 44% in 2060. The path that by-passed college for long-term employment and a secure middle-class life has pretty much disappeared. This has hit men—used to being the breadwinners—particularly hard: David Brooks writes “Men account for close to three out of every four ‘deaths of despair’ — suicide and drug overdoses” (NYT 9/29/2022). Con artists and false prophets who promise a return to an increasingly imaginary past, who stoke our fear of the “other”? Yup, we’re vulnerable.
So Jeremiah’s letter to these exiles—prompted by these false prophets—is one we might want to listen to.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem.” The exiles are still in the hands of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel. God isn’t AWOL.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” They’re (we’re) going to be here for a good while. Unpack. Put down, continue to put down roots.
And equally important: “But 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.” The temptation’s very strong to hunker down, self-isolate. Centuries later Jesus would pick up this commission: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14). Seek, pray. We often don’t have the slightest idea what to pray for; the problems seem so intractable. The good news is that God isn’t limited by our imaginations. Rowan Williams has suggested simply holding the problem and God in the same frame: Lord, be present here. “But 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.”
In situations like this it really helps to have the Exodus as your central story. As today’s psalm put it, “He turned the sea into dry land, / so that they went through the water on foot.” So folk like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and, later, Esther, followed this God through the waters. And in such different ways! Daniel and his companions stayed as far away as they could from Gentile food; Esther gave banquets for the king and selected guests. So the Jewish community in Babylon thrived for centuries. The central text for rabbinic Judaism: the Babylonian Talmud.
In situations like this is really helps to have the new Exodus, Jesus’ cross and resurrection, as your central story. Really hard to defeat someone who doesn’t stay dead. So Jesus’ followers—some of whom are in our calendar—have shown us many ways to seek the welfare of the city. In October we remember folk like Wilfred Genfell, who “built the first hospital of the Labrador Medical Mission in 1893, eventually opening boarding schools, hospital ships, clothing distribution centers, and the Seaman’s Institute at St. John’s, Newfoundland” (Holy Women, Holy Men). Vida Dutton Scudder, who helped found Denison House in Boston to provide social services and education to the local population, and organized unions, and Alfred the Great (9th Century), who turned back the Danes and sponsored translations of classics in history and theology into English.
Following this God, seeking the welfare of the city: we can empathize with Thomas: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus’ response: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The way, the truth, the life: the wonder of that is captured in a poem by W. H. Auden:
He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek him in the kingdom of Anxiety:
you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh:
and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
We’ll use that poem for our offertory hymn.
In closing, today’s Gospel provides a lovely P.S. to Jeremiah. Following this God, seeking the welfare of the city: sounds like it could be a pretty lonely quest. And then there’s that unexpected Samaritan, the one of ten lepers who returns to give praise to God. As Elrond said to Frodo as the nine left from Rivendell: “you may find friends upon your way when you least look for it.” Who knows what allies we might discover if we ignore the many voices seeking to divide us?