Proper 23C – October 9, 2022
St. Paul’s, Bellingham – Proper 23C – October 9, 2022
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I don’t know about you, but I am finding our jaunt through Jeremiah fascinating! Although in our Sunday lectionary (our set cycle of readings), we haven’t read the Book chapter by chapter, mostly because if we did, we’d be doing so until sometime around this coming Easter, we have worked our way through some of the highlights and along the main plot turns and reflections about the people of God. And the book is full of dynamic struggles: political struggles, religious struggles, simply how to live life struggles and more. I keep thinking it’s a bit like an ongoing soap opera (by the way, do they even have those on TV nowadays?) or perhaps actually more like an extended religious play, something along the lines of the Medieval passion plays or the Jewish Purim plays, something which parallels the twists and turns in the acting out of the Book of Esther.
And the part of the text that precedes today’s reading, a part of the text we’ve missed, is one of the most fraught portions. It wasn’t the conflict between King Nebuchadrnezzar of Babylon with his overthrowing Judah and sending the people into exile in Babylon. Rather, it’s the one-on-one conflict between warring prophets, Hananiah who – spoiler alert – is a false prophet and Jeremiah who is indeed the mouthpiece of God. At the center of the conflict is the debate over whether the people of Judah, with the catastrophe of 597 BCE, will be exiled for a relatively short period (two years) or for a much more extended period (about 70 years, three generations).
And here we find visual theater, drama in what we skipped over to get to today. Jeremiah has been strutting his prophetic stuff wearing a wooden yoke over his shoulders to illustrate what is going to come, that people will be yoked like animals, put to work and directed not of their own accord. By the way, in this same chapter, we found God’s giving the power to Nebuchadnezzar to even have control over the wild animals (Jer. 28:14).
But Hananiah takes the yoke off Jeremiah, breaks it (the theater manager needs an impressive prop here that falls apart at Hananiah’s touch!), and claims that likewise God will break the yoke imposed by Nebuchadnezzar within two years. But it is not to be. Jeremiah passes along the word of God which has come to him, saying, “Actually folks (and yes, I’m being liberal in my paraphrase), you might think it is great to have the wooden yoke broken, but God has now said that God will put a heavier, harder yoke upon you and other nations, one of iron. So sad, but true. And Hananiah, sorry for you, but you’ll be dying for being a false prophet who has led this nation with lies.” And sure enough, the text tells us that indeed Hananiah dies.
And this is where we find ourselves today, at the beginning of Chapter 29, a chapter that is focused on wrestling with this new awareness of the “duration of Babylonian rule”1 As we get here, I keep thinking about the lament, uttered by the psalmist in Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?” followed immediately by questions:
- Will you forget me forever?
- How long will you hide your face from me?
- How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
- How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
I can only think that the exiles in Jeremiah’s day asked all these questions. And I’m guessing that this sense of exile goes beyond something that happened 2600 years ago. I wonder if you’ve pondered about how to staunch any current-day pain in your soul. I wonder if you’ve felt that Covid and the lingering aftermath have actually become an enemy to you personally, to our community more broadly, and to our world as a whole. I wonder if we feel like we’ve been exiled into a world we didn’t want to be in for a bunch of reasons: medically, politically, economically, and more. Do we wonder where God is and why God would allow this to happen?
And I want to go back to our text from the Hebrew Scriptures for today. Jeremiah doesn’t become the new “Hananiah” with a message of immediate release and hope. Rather he says that the people are to get set for the long haul. They are to build houses, definitely a long-term plan because one doesn’t build unless one has the intention to stay. Jeremiah doesn’t suggest tent living or short term rentals. What he suggests is settling in as part of the neighborhood. He also suggests planting gardens because the implications are both that they will go hungry if you don’t plant, but also that they will still be here at harvest, actually many harvests.
And it doesn’t just stop there. Jeremiah goes on to talk about the future in discussing marrying off sons and daughters to others there so that the generations continue. And lastly Jeremiah surprisingly urges those in exile to “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.”
I wonder, for those of us in the present, what do we glean from these words? Do they also speak to us? Do we, when we feel we are pushed into exile – maybe not physically but emotionally or spiritually, disconnected from God and others – do we continue to stay invested in what is going on around us.
Today, we have our Ministry Fair after each of our services. This is one way we can stay connected with God and one another, become more connected with our church community, with our local community, and even the broader world. I hope you’ll spend some time, drink in hand, wandering through the Great Hall and consider how God is calling you to step forward with others to seek the welfare of those served by the church, of those within the church community, and more. If there’s not a ministry that does what you feel called to do, please start one or reenergize one that has found itself unfocused. Among others, our Creation Care ministry is hoping to find some new leadership and we have folks who love to walk or hike in creation, but we need someone to set times and places if the Sunday walking group is to restart this fall.
Another thing that I’ve been thinking about this week is indeed about sustenance of community in hard times, in those “How long, O Lord…” times. What Jeremiah says is to stop whining about it, but rather get doing. So, if you wonder about how long ‘til you see someone at church who might not have been here recently, call them and invite them back or see if something is going on in their lives. If you’re for some reason unsure about doing so (maybe you wonder if they’ve been attending another service or there’s another reason you haven’t seen them), let me know and I’ll call them. At my last church (which admittedly was smaller), I made it a goal to call everyone in the parish directory. But I still think it’s better if you reach out…that way builds a more complete sense of community.
And that’s part of what Jeremiah is urging. Community, even if it’s among those into whose land you’re exiled, is important. We can’t simply go into sleep mode while we’re waiting for something else to happen. Rather, even when we feel like we’re in exile or apart from God – and remember that those exiled in Babylon believed that God was most present in the Temple in Jerusalem, so were extremely affected by the destruction of the temple – but we know that God is with us and we are to continue on.
It might have already occurred to you that, as Christians, we also have an additional image of being yoked. Jesus uses the image of a yoke. He presents us with a somewhat different image of the burdens we carry being yokes on us. He suggests that we learn from him and all he has endured. He promises that we will find rest for our souls. And ultimately, as we step forward, we find that his “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). So, we step forward, knowing our call to discipleship is manageable even in the “How long, O Lord?” times.
1 James L. Mays, ed., Harpers Bible Commentary, San Francisco: Harper, 1988, pg. 633.