Sermon delivered at Kokomo First Friends, July 15, 2012. In this message, I share some thought both related to the passage, and my recent visit to Friends in the Osage nation.
Reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14
I am a student at Earlham School of religion. For my undergrad, I studied Theology at Barclay College in Kansas. In both places, we have studied methods of looking at scriptures and sharing the meanings that we find with others. Oddly enough, this process of study has done more to cause me to question what I thought I knew instead of making my knowledge more certain. Of course, knowing what questions to ask makes study so much more fun. Earlham has added to my fun by asking me to consider theology within a social context. This started the very first semester at ESR when I took American Religious History.
In our American Religious History class, Steve Angell told us that before the civil war, both White and Black Christians saw themselves as Israel. To both white and black people, America had direct parallels with Jewish Sacred history. For the white Christians, America was the promised land flowing with milk and honey — which God generously gave them. For the black Christians, America was Egypt, where they had been sold into slavery and cruelly oppressed. When we interpret the scriptures, context makes a huge difference.
Every ESR student seeking a M.Div is required to spend some time in another cultural listening to how they do theology. To meet this requirement, I spent all of last month visiting Native Americans in Oklahoma. I spent all but one week on the land of the Osage nation which is the only remaining federal Indian reservation in Oklahoma. While I was there, I met people, went to the Osage dances and even attended a child’s naming ceremony where he was given his permanent name. (For any who don’t understand — It is the same as if I crashed family a family reunion and a Bar Mitzva.) I preached 3 sermons at Hominy Friends meeting (which serves the Osage community), visited the Kickapoo Friends Center, and spent a week at Quivering Arrow camp (which serves the 4 Friends Indian centers in Oklahoma).
While I was there, someone explained several cultural difference which had a practical application — I won’t try to explain any of them now, but quite simply, Indian culture and White American culture have different moral values. Both our culture and Native culture have an ideal of respecting others, but how you show respect, and who you show respect to is sometimes different. Practically, it means that sometimes what is polite in one culture is unspeakably rude in the other. I was told that native people must live with the dominant culture. They walk in both worlds at the same time — if they are to keep their culture and their moral values. They must find a way to be true to both cultures and themselves.
When I heard this, and I remembered how various Americans historically read Israel’s story into their own — I began to ask: “Where in Israel’s story are the Native Americans in Oklahoma?” My mind moved to the Babylonian captivity. The Oklahoma Indians were removed to what was then “Indian Territory” by our government. Then in 1907, our government took the land we gave to the tribes, and auctioned it off to white people in hope to integrate the Natives. Even on the only remaining Federal reservation, Natives in Oklahoma are less than half of the population. Can a group that was moved away from its homeland, and mixed with a dominant, somewhat hostile culture identify with the story of Israel, I believe they can.
The more I ask myself this question though, the more I started to identify with the same context. Paul, in Philippians 3:20 tells us that our citizenship is in Heaven. Like the Natives, and like the Jews in captivity, we walk a land where sometimes the values clash. Like the natives, we must find a way to live in our dominant culture, while staying true to our (heavenly values). Like the Israelites, and the natives in captivity, we must find our relationship with this world as we navigate a way to live in it.
Many of us see our nation as being in many ways, Christian — however, I don’t know anyone who would suggest that Christian or Biblical values currently dominate our government, or our economy. One popular approach is to keep telling the story of how we are a Christian nation, and calling for the restoration of Christian values. We see ourselves as Judah, in the time of an evil king that leads us away from God — we are praying for that good King to tear down the altars to Ba’al and restore temple worship.
I ask, what if Paul was right — what if, ultimately, there is no Christian nations, only Christians. What if the kingdom of heaven is never established as a government — we are in captivity until we are taken home. In that case, those who say that all we need is to vote in a president and congressmen who better represent Christian values are like the false prophet Hananiah which we can read about in Jeremiah 28. Hananiah said that Nebuchadnezzar would fall in 2 years, and that the captives would be restored. Jeremiah wrote them, saying this was a false prophecy, and they would remain in captivity for 70 years. What if we also remain citizens of heaven, living in a land with very different values for the 70 or so years which constitute a human life? How should we act?
I submit that Jeremiah gives very sensible advice to people who’s whole life is one of walking within two worlds. Yes, it is important that we keep telling our stories. Yes it is important that we remind ourselves of our values — recognizing that our values and those of the world are at times very different. But the goal of being faithful is not the same as the goal of overthrowing the ruling culture. Jeremiah recommends that they not only live in the dominant culture (while being true to their own faith and beliefs), but to pray for them and their prosperity. He told them not only to pray, but to work for that prosperity. Even though it is not our world, we’ve got to live it it.
Friends, one thing that I like about this passage is that it is quite practical. The first thing that it asks us to do is live our lives. For all the calls of a radical subversive breaking with the world, or to fight to remake it — this advice actually sounds like a call for mediocrity. Perhaps we should consider the validity of a faithful person living a mundane life — making a home, raising children, working, and generally living a normal life. Normal people, concerned with the needs of themselves, their family, and their community (both the faith community, AND the secular community.) As I grew up with people saying that normal was not good enough — this is reassuring. Normal is good, when God blesses normal.
The second thing that this passage calls us to do is pray for the peace and prosperity of the city — and by extension I will suggest we pray for our nation and ourselves. I want us to pray for our political leaders, not that our pet issues win, not that our party wins — but that those who govern us govern wisely and well. Even if we voted against them, let us still pray that God blesses their government. We are together now — so let us pray.
- For the peace and prosperity of the United States — let us pray to the Lord.
- For president Barak Obama — let us pray to the Lord
- For our congressmen and our judicial system — let us pray to the Lord
- For the peace and prosperity of Indiana — let us pray to the Lord
- For Governor Mitch Daniels — let us pray to the Lord
- For our lawmakers and judges — let us pray to the Lord
- For the peace and prosperity of Kokomo — let us pray to the Lord
- For mayor Greg Goodnight — let us pray to the Lord
- For the city council — let us pray to the Lord
- For the policemen and firemen — let us pray to the Lord
- For our schools and educators — let us pray to the Lord
- For all who provide services — let us pray to the Lord
- For the poor and the sick among us — let us pray to the Lord
- For Kokomo Friends church, that we can bless and prosper our city state and nation — let us pray to the Lord