Reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14
Last Sunday Donna asked me what I was going to speak on.I told her that I’d not decided yet, and she suggested that there were a lot of things that we spoke about that could be built on. I’ve thought about that, and also what is continuing to be on my heart — and the one thing that stood out the most was that we had a special guest representing Indiana Friends Committee on Legislation.
The last time I spoke to you, I lamented that our society is at times heartbreakingly and frighteningly evil. I unfortunately had no answer to give on how to make the evil go away. When our guest introduced herself, I could not help thinking that lobbying for a more just Indiana must be an exercise in frustration. As far as I can tell, she calls out for something which just is not a priority in our state legislature. It really does not matter if it is at the state or the national level — I cannot imagine the patience that it must take to proclaim a message of justice and respect for human life, and see that message ignored every day congress is in session. I have a lot of respect for people called to this ministry; it is the same ministry as the prophets who spoke God’s truth to the kings of Israel. The frustration must be like the frustration of Isaiah, when God told him that the people would hear, but never understand. We often quote Isaiah 6 to talk about God prepares us to be called — but, we stop before God tells Isaiah what this looks like — utter frustration, nobody listening and nothing changing until Israel is desolate.
This is the problem that we face. Yes, we want, we pray for, and we beg our government for a more just society — a world that is more like our faith teaches us that the world should be, but justice is elusive. As one of my politically conservative friends joked on Facebook: “The real reason that the 10 commandments is removed from government buildings isn’t that they are especially religious. It is because these buildings are filled with politicians and lawyers. Commands not to bear false witness, steal, or commit adultery create a hostile work environment.” I would add that other commandments such as not coveting likely condemn many who compete for political power.
The joke is funny, because we have a sense that it is true. We live in a nation that is devoted to the concept of liberty and justice for all, but even with our idealism, the truth on the ground is often disappointing. I know that for some people, it is tempting to seek a theocracy — but that has been tried before, and the results are nothing anybody wants to see repeated: The results of a theocracy are leaders claiming to speak with the absolute authority and blessing of God — the cry of the theocracy is: “God is on my side” — and the pre-exile prophets said again and again: “No, God isn’t — God is on the side of justice.” Israel failed to follow the laws on justice in the Torah, and those times when Christians created theocracies, they didn’t live up to the teachings of Christ. It does not matter how good the ideals of a government are — the government is filled with greedy, power-hungry, unjust, sinful people. No government is good enough to correct corruption in the human heart.
And this brings me to what Donna suggested — Rex talked about the question: “Who is Jesus?” There are many ways to build on this, but I’d like to point out who Jesus is not. Jesus is not the person who came to kick the Romans out of Israel. Jesus did not come to overthrow an unjust government, and to restore David’s throne. I believe somebody in this meeting pointed out that if we look for good kings, we find nobody. Even David, who has the most praise for being a king after God’s own heart did not come close to living up to the standards of justice that we find in Torah. Jesus did not come to replace one deeply flawed government with another flawed government.
Christianity grew and prospered in a state that cared nothing for Christian morals. Jesus built his kingdom on Earth through transforming human hearts and minds. It was something more enduring than government — and less corruptible. I know corrupt people find leadership positions in churches and denominations — but ultimately, Christianity informs how we can do good in a corrupt, and sometimes downright evil society. The Kingdom of Heaven offers a standard of justice that we all aspire to, even as we live on Earth.
I don’t mean to downplay those who feel a calling to improve the government and the society we live in. It is a hard prophetic calling, and I want to honor it — but even as I honor it, I want to remind us that most of us are not called to personally change the world. Christianity has always been a faith of ordinary and unremarkable people. Most Christians have very little power to change society, or call the government to change — how should the rest of us live?
Our reading is the advice Jeremiah gives to those who live in captivity. For those who don’t know, Jeremiah is traditionally considered the writer of Lamentations. He was a prophet who spoke to an exiled people — and in this reading we hear the advice that he gives to those who live in a less than perfect society. Out of all the prophetic writings, I think the truth spoken to God’s people in exile is closest to the advice the Church should take — our situation is very similar.
Jeremiah tells the people that the Babylonian captivity will last for 70 years. What this means is that the people he is speaking to will die in captivity. The will spend the rest of their life under another government, their grandchildren and perhaps great grandchildren will be born in captivity. The reality that they have to live with is that of long term residence as foreigners who will not live long enough to go home. Those of us who claim citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven are in a very similar place — we were born here, and we will spend a lifetime here.
Because of these similarities, I think about this passage after almost every election. I think of this passage when I see injustice. I think about this passage when I see political arguments descending into point where they break community. I remember this passage when I see friends who feel such distress over what the government recently said or did that they lose hope for the future. I am grateful for Jeremiah’s letter to those in exile, and while we never have it so bad, it is still great advice for most of us: even if the advice goes against what I learned as a child.
I grew up with people talking about potential and the need to change the world. With everything that I learned, and the heroes that I learned about — one would think that the advice to those in captivity would be to violently overthrow Babylon’s government — and then return home with Jerusalem as the capital of a new world empire. We were often taught that freedom is won, and heroes win it, but the advice is not to be a hero.
Jeremiah writes the Jews in Babylon advising them to accept that they live in the foreign place, with strange customs and limited freedom. He advises them to live normal mundane lives — but he does more than this. Many of us see an enemy as something to be torn down and destroyed. Jeremiah tells the Jews in captivity to be extremely good neighbors to their enemies. They are to adopt Babylon as their home — pray that there is peace and prosperity there — and work to maintain both. The Jews are told to work so that their Babylonian neighbors are prosperous because: “As they prosper, so you shall prosper.”
Like many in the United States, I grew up surrounded by people who had an interest in partisan politics. The more I listen, the more I realize that many of these people wish the other party failure. Many would cheer a mild economic downturn, or an increase in crime, or a higher school drop-out rate because these things demonstrate the wrongness of the other party. This advice is meaningful to me, because I realize that no matter how wrong headed the people in charge may be: I still must pray that my neighbors prosper. I should pray that the nation I live in does well; not seek ways to tear down my own home out of spite, nor to celebrate a crumbling infrastructure.
Even more, this corrects the hero-worship I grew up with. It is not so bad to be a ‘nobody’ as I grew up believing. Almost everybody lives a normal life, which passes by unnoticed. We have many opportunities to do good things — and the good things that are done by those of us who are never remembered are far more than the great things done by our heroes. Growing up, thinking I should change the world was too much — and it causes me to despise the good that I can do. This passage helped me realize that living a normal life is enough for God — God even blesses normal. This helps me accept that normal is good enough for me — and that that the good things that my hands find to do are not below my dignity.
Finally, I am reminded to pray for my government — even though I might have chosen a different one. It does not matter how much I might disagree, I should pray and hope for the good of my community and my nation. Whether I pray and hope that my city will prosper because it is well governed, or if I pray and hope it will prosper in spite of bad governance, I must pray and work for the good of my neighbors, knowing that I have a share in the community.