Recently, my dad has had a full schedule of hospital appointments and doctors’ visits. Because he’s using a wheelchair, a Care Transport van picks him up for each appointment. Without fail, the driver is a gentle man in the uniform of brown pants, brown shoes and a green jacket, with limited English, and careful driving skills. One tells us that he is originally from Syria, another is from Guatemala, another is from Eastern Europe. I try to imagine the circumstances that brought them to Michigan, and what sorrows each one carries underneath his tenderness. Each driver’s thoughtfulness touches me, and, with each ride, I am humbled by the kindness they convey, even with their own difficult circumstances.
Each driver reminds me that crafting sorrow into compassion is not automatic. It takes work, as Jeremiah tells the beleaguered exiles.
You can read the Working Preacher commentary here.
Read the scripture here.
The prophet Jeremiah has been warning the people about God’s displeasure for decades now. He has been at odds with other prophets who promised that God would deliver he people, that there was no need to worry. Now that the leaders of the nation have been carried off into exile, now that a foreign power has triumphed and God seems to be absent, this would be the moment for Jeremiah to say, “I told you so,” and take a well-deserved rest. Instead, he has a new word from God. Settle in, he says, with these people who have done so much damage to your country and your way of life.
For people who want to go home, he has a long time frame in mind. This is the work of decades, all this building and planting, getting married and raising children who will then be old enough to get married themselves.
Their world has ended, and this hardly feels like a word of consolation. Their hopes are not lodged in this foreign place. In addition to planning to be there for a long time, God says that their success is entangled with the health of these foreigners who have done them so much harm.
It’s as if God is telling enthusiastic Trump supporters to move to San Francisco and seek the welfare of the city, or devoted Hillary Clinton voters to go to NASCAR events and make new friends. We would react to that instruction with the same surprise and dismay that the people of Israel must have when they hear Jeremiah’s word from God. In our world, Jeremiah’s word from God is an uncomfortable call to seek the welfare of people whose politics we despise, or people who look down on us, or even those who have caused us harm.
No wonder Jeremiah has a long timeline in mind. This is not instant work, or easy work. There’s also a sense of discomfort, for me, that the burden of Jeremiah’s instruction falls on the people who have been dislocated. Where is the responsibility of the people in power, the people who have done the harm, and the people who have more resources to offer? Jeremiah offers an interesting reversal of power — the people in exile don’t have to depend on their captors for their own well-being, rightly. In fact they have a kind of spiritual power that their captors will never understand, as part of God’s plans, but I also wonder about the other half of the equation, and God’s call to the people who do have power.
The sermon might explore:
- You might invite someone who understands the feeling of exile to share their experience. What is it like to live here, if you were born somewhere else, if the food is strange to you, or if you hear a different language in your head? Where do you feel at home, and where not? What can you tell us about the work of creating kinship with different people?
- People can experience a sense of exile even in the country of their birth. LGBTQ+ people are often in exile from family members, or from the church. People of color often live like exiles in a majority white workplace, church or culture. How do we live so we know that our welfare is shared?
- How is our welfare tied up with the welfare of our current day enemies? Where are our fates tied together, and how do we seek good for them, through our actions and our prayers?
- God has a much longer vision than we do. We love immediate results, and God is describing an investment that will take years. Is there a parallel in our lives? What really long spiritual work is God inviting us into? What are we involved in that will take decades?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. She is thankful for all the pie that can be eaten at this time of year. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is from Wikimedia Commons and is an icon of Jeremiah from the Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki, Greece.
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