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The following is a story from the Bible. But it could be the story of everyone here. Anyone, for example, who remembers a place, in your childhood perhaps, where you felt very much at home, at one, and at peace with God, the world and humanity. Take a minute to think of that time and place. Is it where where you live right now? If so, good for you. But you’re in the minority. My place is still there, but its closed to fishing until the last weekend in March. For others among us, it may be halfway around the world. And for others, it may have been paved over to become a Sam’s Club.

If we know what its like to feel restlessness, homelessness, and the fear or pain of not belonging, then that gives us a handle by which to understand today’s Bible passage. Its a letter which the prophet Jeremiah wrote from his imprisonment in Jerusalem, to the first group of captive, exile Jews living to the east, in Babylon, in the region of what is now Iraq and Iran. Over the course of his lifetime, Jeremiah would see three defeats and deportations of fellow Jews to the east, by their Babylonian overlords. The last one was the biggest and most destructive. And oddly enough, Jeremiah would want to go with them. But he was held captive in Jerusalem by certain desperate, to-the-bitter-end hyper-nationalist super-patriots who insisted that God would never let a foreign enemy take Jerusalem or the temple and disperse God’s people. And they had their false prophets who kept promising and prophesying as much.

But Jeremiah was given by God to see the unthinkable: that Zion would be destroyed, its people exiled, and the Temple would be flattened. Yes, the place where they felt most at home, God’s footstool on earth, where the glory of God shone over the mercy seat and the ark of the covenant, where the smoke of sacrifice ascended to heaven, and the blessings of God descended to earth.

But the shining glory of God had long been absent from the temple. Could it have something to do with the idols of other nations that they had placed there? Or maybe that people had offered the right sacrifices and prayers even while they exploited the poor and refused to release the slaves and forgive the debts and restore the land in their appointed years? In fact, while the Babylonian army was besieging Jerusalem, King Zedekiah had ordered all slaves released according to the sabbath year regulation. And within weeks they were re-enslaved. To which God said, through Jeremiah, “And so I shall release you to the sword, to captivity and to disaster.”

But through the unthinkable, Jeremiah saw a glimmer of hope. Not to avoid the exile or save the temple. Too late for that. It was as good as done. He saw instead a glimmer of hope through the exile and beyond it. And so, from his captivity in Jerusalem, Jeremiah wrote the following letter to the first batch of fellow Jews already in Babylon:

Jeremiah 29: 1”This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin [a] and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:  4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.  10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Seventy years later, God made good on his promise to return his people to Judah. There they built another temple. But those were still seventy hard years of exile. Seventy years of being second and third class citizens, seventy years worth of living with the stigma of defeat and the confusion of wondering, if God is God and if God is for us, then why did this happen? Their pain and confusion is powerfully expressed in Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.  2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”

“How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” That sums up seventy painful years of profound spiritual dislocation. Where many of our children and grandchildren forsake their Hebrew heritage and blend in with the culture and religion of our captors? Where every day we are distressed and offended by the imperial civil religion, with its cruel and gaudy golden idols, so visible and worshiped in their temples everywhere, in which unspeakably lewd rituals are acted out, sometimes even human sacrifice? Where our new neighbors say they are distressed and offended by our refusal to blend in and to join in their idolatry, by our refusal to worship their divine kings, so-called, by our faith in one god whom they claim to have defeated when they destroyed his temple?

We have evidence of all these heartaches and conflicts in the Bible books that come from the time of exile, such as Daniel and Esther. Those were seventy very hard years, in which they clung only to hope and to a memory. Psalm 137 goes on to say: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”

And yet those were also fruitful years. For the exiles and their children who came back seventy years later, their flirtation with idolatry and imperial civil religion was over. Seventy years they’d lived in a place so idolatrous that the very word “Babylon” came to mean idolatry, immorality, arrogance and cruelty on a grand, imperial scale.

Yet it was also for them a time and place of great scholarship and learning. Being confronted with an assertive, confident and triumphant idolatry forced the captive Jews to think hard about their faith, to ask themselves why they should believe when it gained them no land nor honor, and to ask themselves what they had to contribute to their new society. Yes, some gave in to the lure of honor and luxury and crossed over into Babylonian society. But many others remained Hebrew and became part of a growing Jewish community that could survive without a temple, without a priesthood, without ritual sacrifices, even without a country, in effect, with all the things that would make the Jewish people enduring, distinct and fruitful for the past 2000 years that they have been without a temple. And, until recently, without a country.

Out of this scholarship and faithfulness arose wise leaders and servants who made powerful and positive contributions even to pagan Babylonian society, such as Daniel, the king’s counselor, Queen Esther, and her uncle Mordekai. But they made their contributions on God’s terms, sometimes while at odds with the society. But they seem to have cared more for God’s approval than for their society’s approval.

In fact, for centuries, even during the time of Jesus, the Jewish community of Babylon was at least as big as the one in Judah and Galilee, if not bigger. And its rabbis and scholars stood head and shoulders with the ones in Jerusalem. So that after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple, the Babylonian Jewish community was prepared to take in thousands of refugees and to lead the worldwide Jewish community spiritually, and in scholarship, until half a century ago, when Israel became a nation again.

And that’s what the first group of exiles, who read Jeremiah’s letter, did before the last and the biggest deportation of Jews from Jerusalem. They took Jeremiah’s advice, to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. [to] Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. [To] Increase in number there; and not to decrease.” When the last and biggest group of deportees arrived, they found there a community of their own already established, with the beginning elements of what would become synagogues, rabbis, the teaching of the Torah, an idol-free alternative kosher economy, the works. It was like coming fresh from Mexico and going to Mercado Central on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue. Only the snow outside tells you that you’re not back at home. If you haven’t gone there yet for tamales, don’t let anything stop you. Or like going to the Somali coffee shop and grocery on 24th Street South if you’re nostalgic for Mogadishu in its better days.

Now why am I recounting all this history, the story of another people, long ago and far away? One reason is because, for our Jewish friends, the exile has never really been over. In the five hundred years after the exile that the second temple stood, it was empty of the shekinah glory over the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant was missing too, with occasional reports that it ended up with Jewish refugees in Ethiopia.

But from a Christian perspective, the glory of God over the mercy seat has returned, but as a person: Jesus of Nazareth. And this glory is now available everywhere on earth in the form of His Holy Spirit, living in us, as “the hope [or downpayment] of glory” to come.

But that doesn’t mean we’re safely home yet. Through Christ, we Gentile believers now join Israel in exile, awaiting the full return of God’s glory to his temple, which temple we now are. And now we know why we can never entirely recreate those childhood moments of at-one-ness with the world or with some special place or person. Because we are exiles awaiting the return to our promised, destined home, when that prayer is answered in full: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

All of which is an awesome, incredible honor, that we should be made joint-heirs with Jesus and Israel of a kingdom and a home yet to come in all its fullness. And such a glorious hope it is. It can be for us a fruitful time, in which we too make our powerful, positive contributions to the world, but on God’s terms.

Yet exile also carries with it a danger: the danger of estrangement, hostility, a sense of superiority, even of violence. Coming into church today, and any day, I see gang graffiti tagged on houses and buildings. I don’t know the code; I don’t know what it means in detail. But I think it says, in general: “This world may not have much of a place for me, except for jail or in the grave; the high and mighty might not accept me; but me and my gang are making our home here and staking our claim, so watch out any of you in any rival gang.” And thus estrangement and a sense of exile can lead to hostility, sometimes even violence.

But Jeremiah tells all such exiles and deportees from God’s paradise not to give in to the bitterness of exile or homelessness. Just as we’re not to give up their faith and just blend in, morally and spiritually, either. Instead, he says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have called you.” Yes, you’ll be different, and you’ll have to accept that. But don’t let the pain of being different and awkward and ill-at-ease in this world turn into hostility or a sense of superiority. Do instead like Daniel and Esther did, to be genuinely interested in and gracious toward your fellow exiles and strangers, to hold to your hope and witness to it, yes, but also to love and serve the very city and the very people to whom you were brought by forces beyond our control.

And now I’m talking to us, today, and not just about them, 2700 years ago. If someone had told many of us, twenty or thirty years ago, that we would end up in this city, in this sanctuary, at this moment, on this morning, our jaws would have dropped to our knees. But God is not surprised by our being here. His advice to Zion’s exiles, so long ago, applies still to all spiritual exiles today: dare to be different, dare to be who God calls us to be. But don’t let any sense of difference, dislocation and homelessness become a wall of hostility or fear between us and other people—who probably also feel like exiles, I remind us—Turn that sense of difference and exile and spiritual homelessness instead into a doorway or a window onto others, precisely because they probably also feel as out of sorts and out of place as we often do. And do that by actively seeking the peace and well-being of the city to which God has called us.

In about a month or so, in the course of our next annual business meeting, we will vote on a proposal to make this very passage from Jeremiah 29, and these very words, to “seek the peace and well-being of the city to which I have called you,” our theme for preaching and teaching and church life throughout this year. To the church council and me, Jeremiah’s words to the Jewish exiles—even his whole attitude about exile–seem like good advice, in the year after we were exiled—sort of—from one sanctuary and found ourselves here. Of course we have it tons better than our spiritual ancestors in Babylon did 2700 years ago. But nonetheless we may have gone through some feelings of homelessness and dislocation—welcome to planet earth and the human race. And there is more to come. Just finding out where all the lights are in this place, and all the outlets, and where we can park after it snows, are experiences of dislocation and befuddlement. But with time it will get better.

And as we make a home here, at least for worship, ministry and fellowship, our eyes will naturally turn toward the community around us. In it we will find fellow exiles. In fact, more than half the people who live in this Phillips Neighborhood will have moved on within a year of their arrival, that’s how transient it is, as a gateway community for immigrants from other countries, or from outstate Minnesota. The people who stay here the longest have typically been the senior residents of senior towers and nursing homes around us. When they know about us, we’ll probably get invitations to do worship and ministry in some of those locations. But there is some urban homesteading and gentrification happening too, by home-buyers seeking to stay and improve the homes and the neighborhood. They are also seeking “the peace and well-being of the city.” Whatever their reasons, they may appreciate us seeking “the peace and well-being of the city to which God has called us.”

Its not that we’d get sermons on only this one passage every Sunday, all year. But as our theme, it could remind us to approach every Bible passage from the point of view of people who know they’re different, who know that they are called to be different, who accept that they’re different, who even dare to be different, but who turn that difference into a bridge to their neighbors, and not into a wall against them.

For the peace that Jeremiah has in mind is the very peace which he and the other prophets of Israel prayed for and predicted for the entire world. The very word for peace in this passage is the Hebrew word, “Shalom,” which means essentially, the very best that can be, God’s supreme will for us and for creation. When we seek the peace of the city, we are modeling that city which is yet to come, the New Jerusalem. And we are saying to our neighbors, in effect: “I want for you God’s best; most of all, I want for you Jesus, who is our peace; and I will help you and affirm you in taking however much of God’s best you want. If for now it is an education for your children, safety in your streets, a roof over your head, food in the fridge, health for your body, that’s all God’s will too, and I care about you knowing such peace, however much you are willing to reach out for, even if we don’t share Jesus. Yet.” That kind of love alone will mark us as quite different.

In the course of these messages, I hope to help us think about doing like what the recipients of Jeremiah’s letter did, when they set about finding ways to be both faithful to God and positive, constructive and loving toward their neighbors, even to their captors. And when they did so on God’s terms. Expect me to share stories, examples and insights about this community and city, maybe sometimes even from members and leaders of this community and city. And expect an adventure of outreach and of in-gathering, of giving ourselves away and of growing, of sharing and receiving, again, so that we might better seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which God has called us.



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