16 October 2007

homily for proper 23C

I ended up serving as pulpit supply for a church this past Sunday. Since they use the Revised Common Lectionary, my homily was based upon the Old Testament and Epistle readings.

Apparently, so I'm told, I preach like an Anglican. I'll take that as a compliment.

Here in chapter 29, the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter from Jerusalem to the Jewish community in Babylon, delivering a word from the Lord addressing their situation.

From the content of the message, it appears that the exile community had been stirred up by unfounded hopes of imminent deliverance, particularly by false prophecies of Babylon’s defeat (narrated in the previous chapters and alluded to later in chapter 29). Moreover, these prophecies seemed to be stirring up unrest in both Jerusalem and among the exiles, perhaps even inspiring thoughts of rebellion against their foreign rulers.

With our knowledge of the larger story of Israel, and from our historical distance, we may be puzzled by these hopes for a freedom soon-at-hand or these plots of political non-cooperation with imperial power. In the face of exile, did Israel still doubt the word of the Lord? Had the Lord not been clear that their exile would last 70 years, more than a generation?

I suspect, however, that few of us really have much sense of how traumatic the experience of the Jewish people must have been as they suffered through forced migration to a distant land – or what a sense of grief, anger, and hopelessness such exile might generate. And yet our present world is full of such stories of exile and mass deportation or displacement, from political oppression of Buddhists in Tibet to the civil war in Sudan, down to the after effects of hurricane Katrina in our own country or those victims brought here as part of global human trafficking.

In his novel Gate of the Sun, Lebanese Christian author Elias Khoury weaves a fictional account of Palestinians driven into Lebanon by the creation of the state of Israel and the 1948 war. The story is told as a series of flashbacks narrated by the main character, Yunes Al-Asadi, as he lies in bed, weak and broken after four decades of exile and struggle, dying in a dilapidated hospice in a refugee camp.

It is a story of ongoing armed struggle against irretrievable loss, of love tested and stretched thin over the distances generated by geography and political unrest, of the pain and daily struggle living as a refugee carrying keys to a family home now occupied by others, of unflagging passion for the restoration of what has been lost and a passion for a renewed justice and peace that never comes, of the inevitable passing away of a generation that remembered a previous way of life for their people.

Many of these contemporary stories of exile echo the experience of God’s people in Babylon and help illuminate all they must have gone through and lost.

Moreover, we find ourselves drawn into such stories of exile and are moved by the human suffering and costs they involve. We recognize that exile is not an experience peculiar to Israel. We do not remain untouched by tales of unrest, distress, and tumult among the nations of our present world. Rather they resonate with our own lives, our own losses, our own struggles, unbelief, and failure in the midst of a broken world.

And why is this? It’s because our personal stories, and the human story as a whole, are a story of exile and return, expulsion from the God's garden of delight and the promise of redemption, of profound loss and the hope of restoration.

So let’s look at today’s Old Testament and Epistle readings a bit more closely. I want to draw out three main themes: first, seeking peace; second, enduring hardship; and third, speaking truth.

Seeking Peace

As the Lord addresses the exiles through Jeremiah, he confronts their false hopes with an extraordinary message, challenging the deceptions of the prophets. He urges them to set aside their expectations of imminent release and their plots of political unrest.

Instead, the Lord encourages the exiles to settle down and lead normal lives: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” The God of Israel goes on to encourage parents to seek the marriage of their children and to look forward to the birth of a new generation, there in Babylon, a generation who would never know what it was like to have once lived in the land of promise.

In the face of being uprooted from their homes, perhaps torn from their families, oppressed by a foreign political regime, and forcibly deported to a distant land – in the face of all of this, the Lord tells the exiles to settle in for a lengthy stay, to put down roots and embrace the situation into which he had sent them at this time.

After all, living in constant turmoil and unhappiness would not resolve or change their situation. Impatience could not end the exile any sooner.

Furthermore, instead of the exiles seeing their situation as wholly negative or as an unmitigated evil, the Lord encourages his people to find in it a new opportunity and a new calling or vocation within God’s larger purposes for his people. He says to them, “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.”

“Seek the welfare,” that is, the peace or shalom of Babylon. What does this mean? This notion of “peace” is not simply a desire for the Jewish exiles to live quiet lives in their new situation, unmolested by their Babylonian neighbors. Rather, within the larger scope of the biblical narrative this peace, God’s shalom, is the overflow of God’s effective presence and rule in the world. It is the new, hope-filled future that God promised to his people, when he himself would come into their midst and establish his kingdom, when Israel’s oppressors would receive judgment, and the entire created order would be renewed and made whole.

And this – this peace, this shalom – is what the Lord calls Israel to seek in the midst of her exile in Babylon. And the exiles are to seek this peace not just for themselves, but also for Babylon. They are to intercede in prayer for their enemies and oppressors. They are to seek the salvation and renewal of those into whose land they had been deported and among whom they live as strangers and even enemies.

Furthermore, it is in seeking this peace and welfare of Babylon that the exiles would find their own peace and know their God to be faithful. While the Lord continued to hold out the hope and promise of an eventual return from exile, in this place and at this time, he called his people to seek the salvation of their enemies and to pursue wholeness in the midst of exile. And, what is more, the Lord connects and binds together Israel’s own peace and renewal with that of their new home.

What can we learn from this for our own situations and contexts?

We ourselves continue to live as exiles in the midst of a broken world. While God’s promise of a hope-filled future and the establishment of his kingdom and shalom are certain, we do not yet experience their full reality.

We find that projects we undertake lie unfinished, almost forgotten. Or that career hopes and vocational dreams we held to when we were younger have been pushed aside by obligations of family or the difficulties of our workplace.

Various relationships we had once entered into and in which we found joy and fulfillment may end up stretched thin by distance or neglect or sometimes broken apart entirely.

Perhaps our finances are unexpectedly tight or the car is falling apart and we don’t have the means to replace it right now. Or maybe our next door neighbors are not the ones we had hoped for. Or perhaps we are more lonely than we ever imagined we’d be or we’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, or infertility, or the miscarriage of an unborn child.

Whatever the case, in our daily lives we encounter constant reminders – large and small – that this present age is not our final destination and that our hearts long and ache for the future that God has in store for us, for the establishment of his kingdom, and for the restoration of our world.

And we are tempted, like the exiles in Babylon, to seek immediate solutions, to listen to voices that offer false promises of quick results; we are tempted to rise up against the difficulties facing us in ways that are likely to harm us and those around us.

So what are God’s words through the prophet Jeremiah calling us to do?

Seek peace – seek the welfare of the city – to embrace the situations into which God has sent us, to embrace them as his calling upon our lives here and now.

To regard them as opportunities in which we can make the peace of the Lord known through our response to circumstances and in our service to others, in planting gardens and establishing our homes as places of welcome.

To intercede in prayer on behalf of those around us caught up in the same difficulties or to pray for them and their salvation even when they are the source of our difficulties.

To acknowledge God’s faithfulness to us and to his promises even in the midst of hardship.

And God’s promise is that in seeking the peace and welfare of others, we will find our own. By carrying God’s salvation – his kingdom and wholeness – into the dark and broken places of our own lives, God’s redeeming presence overflows into the lives and situations around us. And in seeking the welfare and shalom of those around us, we will find that God remains faithfully among us. The salvation of each of us is inextricably bound up with God’s saving purposes for others.

And so, we are to seek peace in all the places of this world into which God sends us.

Enduring Hardship

In today’s epistle reading we find that, like the Jewish exiles in Jeremiah’s day, the Apostle Paul was person who knew what it meant to endure hardship and to suffer at the hands of others. He finds himself imprisoned, “chained like a criminal,” as he says.

And why is Paul imprisoned? For the sake of his gospel – God’s message of peace for a broken world, good news of wholeness for a world disfigured by sin, a royal proclamation of a new king who will accomplish all of this. He writes “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David.” That’s Paul’s gospel in a nutshell.

Paul proclaims a gospel that echoes the message of Jeremiah – that even in the midst of hardship and imprisonment, God is faithful. He is at work to save and make whole. Paul may be chained, but the good news itself cannot be chained. Paul may endure hardship, but in seeking the salvation of others, Paul knows himself to be approved by God.

Paul’s patience and endurance are rooted in his confidence that “if we have died with Christ, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” And while our own denials and unbelief must have consequences – as the Jewish people themselves learned through their exile – even in the midst of our failures, God remains faithful to his promises. While Israel did not escape the consequences of her faithlessness, those consequences became a place in which God’s faithfulness to his people shone through, because God cannot deny himself.

Yet, we can say more.

Paul – and we who live after him – find ourselves further along in the story of God’s faithfulness since we know how God’s promises to Israel have come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus we see human faithlessness and its consequences come to their fullest expression, arraying themselves against Jesus and seeking his death.

When the God of Israel appeared in human flesh, he set aside the trappings of his eternal glory and made himself an exile amidst a nation of exiles. And in Jesus Christ we see Israel’s obedience truly lived out and Jeremiah’s promise fulfilled. Jesus did not seek to return to his Father without first enduring hardship. He did not try to stir up violence against the powers of evil in the world.

Instead, Jesus settled down among us, shared table fellowship with us, formed a new family from among us, and lived in solidarity with our own present age of exile. Jesus sought the peace of the world into which the Father had sent him – the shalom, wholeness, and renewal that manifest the kingdom of God.

In seeking our welfare, Jesus found his own – the Father raised him from the ultimate exile of death to reign over God’s own kingdom. In Jesus the peace and wholeness of humanity takes the form of his own resurrection life.

Our place in the story of God’s salvation goes beyond what Israel in Babylon could ever have understood or imagined. Thus, when Paul looks to Jesus he sees all God’s promises unexpectedly and surprisingly fulfilled.

In Jesus, God works out his faithfulness even in the face of human unfaithfulness, so that we can endure hardship with confidence. In Jesus, we know that God is truly God-for-us, so that we may endure everything for the sake of God’s saving purposes in the world. In Jesus, we know that the salvation of each of us is bound up with the salvation of all whom God will save.

And so, even more that Israel in exile, we can endure hardship for the sake of making God’s peace known in the world.

Speaking Truth

The epistle reading ends with a warning from Paul: “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.”

Ministry to others based upon confidence in God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ is a ministry that will not need to sink into disputes over words.

We know, of course, from Paul’s own witness that sometimes we must the speak truth in love, contending for what we know to be true and important. Likewise, in our Old Testament reading, Jeremiah’s letter served as a sharp rebuke against the false prophets who were holding out vain hopes for the imminent end of exile, perhaps even stirring up unrest.

But there is a difference between disputes about the truth and disputes about how we best talk about the truth. We can easily recognize the danger of such disputes, especially among those who live as exiles and who endure hardship. In such situations, tempers run short, harsh words are exchanged, disputes arise over matters of little consequence.

These wranglings prove to be distractions from the task at hand – bearing faithful witness to the promises of God, to the message of God’s peace, to the unchained word of the gospel.

Paul states that those who “rightly explain the word of truth” can labor in God’s kingdom without shame, knowing that God approves what they say. Paul’s phrase here “rightly explaining” or “rightly dividing the word of truth” seems to have the sense of cutting to the heart of matters, carving a pathway straight to the important destination.

And this is what we see both Jeremiah and Paul do in their own speech.

Jeremiah says, “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 message is simple and direct.

And, likewise Paul: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel… If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.” Paul cuts to the heart of the matter.

The message of the gospel is not ultimately unclear or a matter of endless dispute. And our task, as those who bear witness to God’s kingdom, who seek God’s peace within our various callings and contexts, who endure hardship for the sake of God’s saving purposes – our task is to set forth that message to others. Our work is to make the word of truth clear – in our words and in our lives – in such a way that others may be grasped by it and know our God to be faithful.

Let's pray.
Living God,
help us so to hear your holy Word
that we may truly understand;
that, understanding, we may believe,
and, believing,
we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience,
seeking your honor and glory in all that we do;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.