Sermon, Oct. 9

How shall we seek the good of the city where we dwell?

We use this phrase in our Prayers of the People – Work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell, for in its peace we shall find our peace. Today the lectionary brings us those words in context, late in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jerusalem and the whole land are conquered by Babylon, as Jeremiah had predicted, and many of the people are taken into exile in Babylon. This passage is part of a letter that Jeremiah sent to those exiles. He was writing to counter the words of false prophets, who were telling the Jewish exiles that Babylon would soon be destroyed and they would be able to go home. Instead, Jeremiah says, You’re going to be there for a while. Build houses. Plant gardens. Have families. And seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you, for in its welfare, in its peace, you will find your own.

I’m glad to have the chance to explain the text and its context. I want to make sure we understand that the city mentioned there isn’t necessarily Madison. Maybe it’s Middleton. Verona. Mount Horeb. Maybe it’s Dane County. Or Wisconsin. Or the United States. It’s … wherever we find ourselves. Where we live and work, rest and play. Where we abide. Where we know the struggles, and have the chance to be part of the solutions.

How shall we seek the good of the city where we dwell? I added these words to our weekly Prayers maybe 18 months ago. Before that we had prayers for the world and the nation, but I noticed how much our prayers and actions were focused on local issues, local needs, and I thought, We need a particular place for those prayers and intentions. These words from Jeremiah came to mind, and fit so well. I treasure this text because it holds up the paradox of belonging and not belonging that’s central to life as a person of faith. Our loyalties are first and foremost to God’s kingdom and God’s ethics, which are often in tension with the ethics and norms of the world. Yet we’re called to engagement, not disengagement; to love, not condemnation.

Jeremiah wrote these words in a very particular moment; but I think I can defend using this random snippet of Old Testament prophecy as part of our weekly intercessions in Christian worship. Because what Jeremiah says here about how the exiles should live in Babylon is a lot like the way Jesus and the Apostles direct the first Christians to think and live: Be not conformed to the world, know yourselves as a people set apart, a people whose homeland is elsewhere, not even of this world; but live in this world as Jesus did: loving, grieving, celebrating, helping, healing, feeding, showing up, speaking out.

It was pretty easy for the earliest Christians to remember this because they felt like exiles; their way of faith put them at odds with other religious groups and with the cultural and political order around them. The Old Testament tells us that the people Israel, the faith-ancestors of both today’s Christians and Jews, had times of peace and prosperity when they were tempted to forget that they were first and foremost God’s people, not as a self-made and self-sufficient nation. Times when God had to remind them that they didn’t belong where they were in any deep or lasting way. The books of the Torah remind the Jews again and again that they were aliens and slaves in the land of Egypt. And the great festivals of the Jewish calendar, Passover, Sukkoth, Purim, remind them too of their times of being outsiders, wanderers and exiles.

Jews living today carry the collective memories of millennia of living – and dying – as an oppressed minority. They are not likely to forget that their loyalties are never simply to any earthly kingdom. But we Christians, well, our faith became the religion of empire 1600 years ago. That chapter of unquestioned dominance for our way of faith is waning now, and we’re struggling, in many respects, to remember – to reconstruct from the wisdom of our faith ancestors – how not to belong. How to be outsiders, exiles, whose identities and loyalties come from somewhere else than the place in which we find ourselves, but who work and pray faithfully for the good of the city where we dwell.

I think that’s why Jesus in his wisdom gave his followers so many stories and examples of strangers and outsiders being the ones who truly recognize God’s power and mercy. Like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel. Please note, the other nine guys are all doing what Jesus told them to do – going to show themselves to the Jewish religious authorities, to be certified as healed and clean from their disease, and free to resume normal life. Familiar rites, institutions and theologies take over. We have no reason to believe that they thought much about Jesus, after that day. The Samaritan is outside of that religious system. So where does he take his gratitude? He takes it back to the man who seems to him to have brought about his healing: Jesus. It’s his very outsiderness that makes him able to see clearly how God is at work.

The theme is familiar because Jesus tells it, and shows it, again and again. Listen to those on the outside, and remember, hold onto, your own outsider-ness; you often get the broadest view from the cheapest seats.

How shall we seek the good of the city where we dwell?

It’s pretty hard sometimes, and exhausting. We’re in one of those seasons right now. There’s so much going on in the life of our nation, let alone the larger world, that makes people feel angry, fearful, confused. Overwhelmed. Outraged. Despairing. We can be tempted to disengage. To think, like the exiles in Babylon: I don’t really belong here, and this place and its problems are just not my problem.

I read a short essay on this topic a few months ago that I really, really loved. And I’m going to share a little of it with you now. It’s written by a bear, who blogs and tweets regularly. Well, okay. It’s probably actually a person, but it sure sounds like a bear. She wrote this essay in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting back in June. And she’s basically reflecting on the struggle to keep striving for the good of the forest where she dwells. Listen.

“I wish doing things to make everything better for everyone in the forest was as easy as thinking about doing things to make everything better for everyone in the forest. It is not, though. In fact, it is actually very difficult for me to do things in the forest that feel like they affect anyone or anything beyond [me] or my immediate forest surroundings…I have tried, certainly, but the things I want changed seem to stay the same, no matter how much effort and dedication I put toward the changes I want to see. That is one of the more frustrating aspects of this: the one thing I do have control of [myself and my surroundings] are the only things I can effectively change. However, changing [myself] does not make the terribleness of the bad things that can happen in the forest change, go away, or get better. What I can change does not matter for the things I want to change. Sometimes I wonder if I should mind [my own bearness] and nothing else. I wonder if it is possible that all creatures of the forest are meant to simply mind their own personal creatureness… I am a bear, and I can only control my bearness, and I just have to accept that and move on with my bearness. But… I do not like that.  Some [creatures] fight just to make others feel like their otherness is wrong, bad, and worthless… And some [creatures] actually hurt and destroy [others], which is not fair or nice or necessary… I have to be a part of all of those relationships of the forest. I cannot just tend to my own bearness while [others] are hurt or hindered or hushed… If another creature cannot be the creature it is or wants to be because it is being unfairly stopped or even hurt, how could I not intervene? … [pause] I know that not everyone can tend their everyoneness, and sometimes they need help with tending their everyoneness.”

It’s a funny phrase: Tending our everyone-ness. But it’s the phrase I’ve kept thinking about, over the months since I first read the bear’s musings. Tending our everyone-ness. Our capacity to recognize the other, the stranger, the outsider, as also a child of the forest and a child of God. In our Discipleship Practices, we call this Reconciling: living as people who know that we are all one in God’s eyes. That there is no such thing as other people.

There is a paradox here, for the exiles in Babylon and for us: it’s our otherness, our commitments as people of faith, that drive us to tend our everyone-ness, to respond to our neighbors in love. It’s the paradox of Jeremiah’s call to the exiles: Remember who you are, but don’t keep yourselves apart. Strive for the welfare of the city where you live as exiles. Be an active part of the common good, wherever you find yourselves. Tend your everyone-ness.

How shall we seek the good of the city where we dwell?

Of course, the biggest thing straining our capacity to tend our everyone-ness right now is the election season. Some of us are angry, hopeful, fearful, determined, defensive. All of us are weary. How does Jeremiah’s call speak to us right now?

Some of you probably feel tempted to say, A pox on both their houses!… You’re so fed up that you’re ready to disengage entirely. I believe that faithful stewardship of what God has given us as citizens of a democracy, however flawed, involves informing ourselves and voting. If the candidates and the process make you queasy, try thinking past the election; look at the candidates’ policy priorities, think about the vision for the country they’re promoting, and weigh that against your values and convictions as a Christian. Make your choice on that basis. People of good conscience may arrive at different conclusions. But striving for the good of the city where we dwell demands that we take the impact of our votes seriously.

Some of you are deeply engaged, and fiercely passionate, for your candidate and/or against the other candidate. Tending your everyone-ness is even harder for you, friends, than for those who are just exhausted and ready to tune out. Because for you, it means trying to keep loving those on the other side. Setting aside judgment in favor of curiosity and compassion. What brought them to stand where they stand? How is their path like and unlike the path that brought me to stand where I stand? It is hard to look at someone who holds views you find hateful and tell yourself, This is a human being whom God loves. It’s hard. But it’s not optional.

On November 9th we will be the United States. We will still have to live with each other. We are going to need a lot of active, intentional, loving tending of our everyone-ness, after this divisive and exhausting season. In times of struggle, threat, anger, fear, uncertainty, it’s tempting to pull back into ourselves. To hunker down in the places where we feel safe, with the people who’ll affirm our opinions. To mind our own bearness.

But the hopeful, the faithful response, is to keep pushing outwards. To keep reconciling. To tend our everyone-ness. To work and pray, faithfully, for the good of the city where we dwell. For in its peace, friends, someday, somehow, we shall find our peace.

The bear’s wise words may be read in full here: