God of grace, however difficult it may be, make us present in this moment- this time of worship, and this greater time of change. Bring your Spirit upon each one of us, drawing us together in community, to learn on the way, and invest in your kind of future. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
For many of you, I assume, the last few months have challenged your perception of what the future will look like. It’s been true for me, too. My thoughts used to be consumed with goals to reach, schedules to coordinate, trips to plan. There was always somewhere to be, or something to do that would move life forward in a certain trajectory. Now, of course, there are still tasks to accomplish and things to plan for the church, but as we are learning on the way, in this season, I will admit that one of my greatest learnings has been that I have made sacred the idol of the future. My whole life has been about the long view, and not so much about daily bread. I’ve made the audacious presumption that I could control not just tomorrow, but life even five or ten years from now. In my fragile yearning for knowledge and assurance I have worshipped at the feet of what I thought was inevitable if only I worked hard enough. And, I must say, I’ve done a pretty good job of it, though the foundation of this future has always rested upon my unearned privilege and whiteness. Those are the real gods I’ve placed on the altar, I suppose- the golden calves of my life in the land of the (quote/unquote) “free.” The future has been mine precisely because it’s been uncertain for others.
As I’m sure you do as well, I open my newspaper app on my phone in the morning and wonder how it could all be. My wondering is problematic, though. Our nation feels like it’s imploding, and the sinking feeling I get in my stomach is the realization that- and this is the thing I’m most ashamed to confess- that for many there has never been a future. The millions of Americans who were already living on the edge before now weren’t putting an employer matched 8% into their 401ks; they were just trying to figure out how to feed their kids over the summer without free and reduced lunch. Generational poverty, immigration status, dislocation, and systemic racism are barriers that keep so many from even approaching the future. At the end of this month, which is in just a few days, as many as 28 million Americans could face eviction once federal unemployment insurance expires and eviction bans across the country lift. That’s one in eight people in our nation. According to Urban Footprint, “This level of displacement would be unparalleled in U.S. history and carries the potential to destabilize communities for years to come.” And, what’s more, it most adversely effects people who were already on the margins.
In some ways, though, this present moment has made everything seem more honest. For those of us with privilege, our lives will stay relatively intact, but for all of us, in some way or another, this pandemic has opened up an unhealed wound. There’s no putting a bandaid on it now- we must re-evaluate the past and present, getting real about ourselves, and the one-way road we’ve been on without looking back. It seems like we are gaining some public consciousness around so many systems that are broken, and that is good, in a painful way. There’s tension in the air. For some it’s a relief, but for others there’s resistance. There are shifting priorities of seismic proportions. We are collectively asking ourselves, “what takes precedence now?”
In our reading for today we learn the nation of Israel is also going through a painful time in exile. Though we must be careful not to create parallels between our current context and the one experienced by the Jewish community, there are things we can learn from this story. Following a long period of oppressive and complicit leadership, dysfunction between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, pretentious prosperity, politicized religiosity, failing to heed the warnings of prophets and continuing to distance themselves from God’s covenant, Jerusalem and the temple were ultimately overtaken and destroyed by the Babylonians and the people of Israel displaced in exile for 70 years. The behavior of the most powerful, led to the demise of them all. It sounds all too familiar.
Unlike the other prophets, though, who were vehemently against a relationship between Israel and Babylon, Jeremiah promoted it. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” This is a difficult thing to talk about- a hard concept to understand. Babylon is the oppressor, so is Jeremiah suggesting the Israelites should succumb to Babylon’s ways and give up on their own? Should the abused become friendly with the abuser? I don’t think so. But, perhaps what Jeremiah is getting at is this: Israel has forgotten who they are. They moved on, pursuing their own version of the future, without giving consideration to the covenant. They forgot how fragile life is without God’s help. And now that they’re in exile, a return to the way things were is no longer possible, so Jeremiah suggests they take this time to relearn their way in the world. To focus less on being a strong nation-state, and place more into being good neighbors. Jeremiah has asks them to invest in a different kind of future- one that seeks the welfare of the present as a vehicle to sustainability for years to come.
There was an article this spring in the New York Times magazine about a restaurant closing in Manhattan. For twenty years the owner of Prune had built a community of patrons and employees around a simple, delicious menu, reasonable prices, and the health insurance she offered her staff of 30. She writes, “the work itself — cooking delicious, interesting food and cleaning up after cooking it — still feels as fresh and honest and immensely satisfying as ever.” And, she never made any money at it. Didn’t put away savings. Paid herself $425 dollars a week. She was in it for the love of it, for the sheer pleasure, the thrilling hustle of living in the moment, resisting the idea of more. Perhaps her luddite tendencies were part of the downfall; this spring, it all came apart. The manager of her restaurant emailed her early on in the pandemic and asked if they should start a go-fund-me, but, she wrote, “It felt like a popularity contest or a survival-of-the-most-well-connected that I couldn’t bring myself to enter. It would make me feel terrible if we were nicely funded while the Sikhs at the Punjabi Grocery… down the street were ignored.” She still has a ten-year lease on the place, and can’t pay the bills, so she’s just waiting to see what happens. And, her story has stuck with me. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/magazine/closing-prune-restaurant-covid.html)
We’ve created a world where those who never ask for too much, who have chosen creativity over prophet, who are willing to exist in the uncertain present, have now been left with nothing, and that is deeply unsettling. But, now is the moment when we can let that fact sink in, ruminate over it, and consider that this exilic season, even though it is uncertain, might be our most productive, yet. The exilic moment in Israel’s history, with the destruction, occupation, and dislocation, is what many would call a kairos time. It’s a Greek word used to describe a holy event where crisis meets an unexpected opportunity.
You see, what Jeremiah asked the Israelites to do was innovative. It was countercultural. I wonder what might happen if the powerful among us began to think of ourselves as those in exile. Many of us do not have the experience of being refugees, and it’s important to make that distinction. But, if we thought of the pandemic as an exile of sorts, how would we interpret Jeremiah’s call? As Monica Melancthon writes, “As the prophet of critique and hope, Jeremiah… suggests strategies to survive the suffering and devastation… without the old support systems… Jeremiah envisioned a beginning to the healing needed… [by courageously giving] up unrealizable hopes and other harmful practices that seemed to offer a false sense of security. ‘The prophet of hope insists that the… community must surrender its old identity in the land and accept its marginal status in diaspora in order to survive and eventually flourish.’”
Accepting marginal status in order to flourish seems counterintuitive. But, this is what people of faith are called to. Part of the work of surrendering is genuinely seeking God’s interests before consideration of our own. It’s hard. I remember reading this passage with young adults in WestConnect, once. Jeremiah 29:11 is highly quotable, a text we love because it’s comforting- they all knew it. Jeremiah writes, “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord.” What we often forget is the follow up verse. “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” At the crux of this story is their relationship with God. The covenant. They had not held up their end of the bargain. In Chapter 31 we see that in the middle of exile, God promises to make a new covenant with them. The new covenant is no longer about land or prosperity, safety and security. Through Jeremiah God says, “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
It’s interesting when you look at artwork that depicts the exilic period- nearly all of it has to do with Israel’s breaking of the covenant. Theologian Glenn Hinson writes about this in one of his commentaries on Jeremiah. There are plenty of images of stone tablets, burnt offerings, and golden calves, which are important to examine. But, how do you depict a faith that engages in the necessary tension of the present, instead of winsome, nostalgic thoughts of the past? Clearly, in the United States we haven’t been able to figure it out, as we watch statues of historic oppressors come crashing down. And what will replace them? Hinson says there’s hardly any art that shows the new covenant coming into being. Jeremiah, he writes, envisioned an unbreakable covenant, inscribed, as the Apostle Paul later phrased it, “not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of human hearts.” (E. Glenn Hinson, Lectionary Homiletics, January 1, 2010)
The artwork I chose for today is from one of my favorite Christian artists who has collaborated with her two-year old twins on a series. Her kids scribble and dab, and she works with what they have put down on paper, to create a beautiful drawing or painting. Most of them have a kind of wistful melancholy. Her work, before this, as well, always seems to have a straining to it, a sort of chaotic creation happening that is very present in the moment. It lets the disorder exist in its fullness. This is what I imagine kairos looks like, or the birthing of a new covenant. The discontented, unjust intensity of our now, is God crying out to us, yearning for us to take note, to write the future on our hearts.
The people of Israel were about to retreat, to withdraw emotionally, to seek interior solace and deny the reality of captivity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve wanted to do this more times than I can count in the last few months. To settle into this new normal and ignore the world around me. Someone told me this week they think many of us are hitting a wall right now. I get it, and God understands it, too. But who are we and who will we be if we stop there?
Theologian Douglas John Hall recounts an early church legend, that helps us understand this better. He writes, “In the legend of Quo Vadis, [the latin translated ‘where are you going?]’ Peter, the apostle, is fleeing burning Rome, where many of his fellow Christians are undergoing the horrors of Nero’s persecution. Peter is moving as quickly as he can… away from the city, when he encounters Christ himself, heading in the opposite direction. “Where are you going, Lord?”—he asks. Jesus answers, “Into Rome, to be crucified again.” Peter turns around, according to the legend, and makes his way back into the burning city, where ultimately he will be martyred, crucified upside down.” (See Hall, p. 54.)
Jeremiah knew the future depended on a faith like the one Jesus showed us, one that is written in the deepest part of our hearts. We know we cannot wish for what was, or wait for the timing to be perfect. The discomfort of the present kairos moment is where we must invest, put down roots, stay awhile. Death and resurrection won’t happen when it’s convenient. There is so much at stake in exile.
What I read in this story, and what I hope you do, too, is a shedding of expectations, of judgment- a shedding of our very selves. Looking to the welfare of everyone else besides us, means we will find our own welfare… eventually. It means we will have to Learn on the Way, and Invest in the Future. As the prophet reminds us, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” Thanks be to God. Amen.