Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for June 21, 2020: In Its Welfare, You Will Find Your Own: Jeremiah 29:1-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.
The country singer and song writer Mel Tillis was trying to write a new song and it just wasn’t going anywhere. He’d been trying to write a follow-up to a song of his about Tupelo, Mississippi, but when he played it for a colleague, the other man said he needed to try something else. Said that he needed to write about a new city. As he kept working with the tune he’d started and some of the lyrics, he began a second conversation, this time with Danny Dill, another song writer friend. Danny related something that he’d noticed when he’d been playing small shows and sets in bars in Detroit. This conversation would have been happening in the early 1960’s. A lot of people had been moving to Detroit. Danny Dill noticed that some of them were having a really hard time of it.
For some people who moved, like Black Americans who were leaving racial violence in southern states, while not perfect, the city of Detroit was still a place where a better life could be built and good wages found. The move was grounded in hopefulness. For others, like impoverished southern white people from both the Deep South and the Southern Highlands, the move to the North was more complicated. They were drawn by the same jobs as Black Americans but, with more reservations. Many would have preferred to stay where they had been raised, but, found it too hard to make a living. For many of these migrants, Detroit was a place they worked. It would never really feel like home.
Some folks would come home to Kentucky and Tennessee every weekend they had free and during every lay-off at the plant. Others would go to Detroit for a while, save some money, and then move back south. Some would be so miserable that they could never build a life for themselves in their new city. Mel Tillis and Danny Dill ended up writing a song about one of those people. The first verse of the song, known as Detroit City is:
I wanna go home/ I wanna go home/ oh how I wanna go home
Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City
And I dreamed about those cottonfields and home
I dreamed about my mother, dear old papa, sister, and brother
I dreamed about that girl who's been waiting for so long
I wanna go home/ I wanna go home oh /how I wanna go home
This is a song of lament and lonesomeness. It is a song about someone completely displaced and out of place, regretting the decision he made to follow the jobs north. He eventually says that he’s going to swallow his pride, admit that he hasn’t been able to find what he was looking for, and just go home.
I wonder what this guy would have done had he received a letter like the one the exiles received from Jeremiah in today’s scripture. Because, they were singing a similar refrain: I wanna go home/I wanna go home/I wanna go home. And, they hadn’t made the choice to move to Babylon. Sure, poverty drove some white southerners to seek jobs away from home, but, it was still a choice they made and were allowed to make. The Israelites had been forced into exile by a conquering army. They didn’t want to leave Judah and they didn’t want to stay in Babylon. They were people twice traumatized, first by the terrors of war in their homes and then by the forced removal of their leadership to Babylon. They would have said that they wanted to go home and the last thing they wanted to hear was that they would have to stay. And, that’s just what Jeremiah told them. They would have to stay.
To put this part of Jeremiah in context, Dr. Wil Gafney describes it this way: She said imagine that a foreign army has beaten our army in a war that is in our country. Now, imagine that our government has been dismantled and key religious and cultural artifacts have been stolen and carted away to sit in someone else’s palaces and museums. The president and their family, plus the cabinet, plus all of Congress and the remaining military leaders have all been forced to move to the foreign country, along with our most celebrated artists and most skilled craftspeople. There is great famine back home and great isolation and fear in the other place. It would be almost impossible to rebuild and recover. That’s how complete the devastation is. This is the kind of situation that Jeremiah was responding to.
I think the letter the exiled leaders were hoping for was from someone who was going to tell them that whatever this exile is, it would be short-lived... That they wouldn’t have to figure out how to change their lives anymore to fit Babylon. They had lost enough. They wanted someone to tell them when God would come save them and let them go home. In her commentary on this passage, Dr. Alphonetta Wines noted that some prophets, like Hananiah, had predicted as little as a two year stay in exile. That might not have been great, but it might have been manageable. Many hard things are manageable if there is an end date. It’s too bad that Jeremiah didn’t think there was going to be an end date any time soon.
Jeremiah had not been sent into exile. He was so much on the margins of religious and political leadership that the Babylonians did not think it was worth it to send him in exile. You see, the exile was a way to disrupt the leadership capacity of the Israelites. You kill or steal capable leaders. That makes it very hard to organize a resistance or rebuild. The Babylonians didn’t see Jeremiah as a threat. He was able to remain in Judah, where he experienced the trauma and post-war deprivations firsthand. It is in this destruction that Jeremiah finds his call. And, his call is to help the exiled leaders survive. Dr. Wines puts in this way, he writes a letter to the exiles to help them adjust to their current situation, rather than escape it.
As one who has been having to do a lot of adjusting in the midst of COVID-19, an event that isn’t exile but is disruptive, I can understand this yearning for news that the disruption is over and that things can get back to normal. Jeremiah’s letter is more like the direction we’re getting from scientists... we don’t know how long this is going to last, some of the changes we’re making are long-term if not permanent. But, just because we don’t know when it will be over, that doesn’t mean you can’t find blessing right where you are. Jeremiah says to the exiled that they will find blessing in actually making a life in Babylon: plant gardens, marry partners, have children. He says to them, you will feel the impulse to shrink and decline and isolate. But, don’t do that. He says build and grow and connect. This is going to take a long time and that is how you will survive.
Dr. Gafney points out that Jeremiah’s instruction to seek the welfare of the city in which they have been exiled does not rely on some kind of amend-making on the part of Babylon. It is unlikely that Babylon would have apologized for what they had done. However, Babylon and Israel were inextricably connected at this point. Anything the Israelites did to make their city more livable would only help them to survive the captivity. And, that should be their main concern: finding a way to cultivate as good a life as possible. Those who were not deported will not have this luxury. This will continue to live in great deprivation. The ones in Babylon must take advantage of whatever goodness they can find right where they were. When they are finally able to return, their people will need them to be in as good a shape as possible.
I am grateful that this scripture reminds us that beauty and life can be wrought from terrible circumstances. In some cases, the beauty is in the haunting songs that help us lament, even if we’ve never lived in Detroit City. In other cases, the beauty is in the ways communities can be reorganized by their response to disasters. Dr. Wines reminds us that much of the Hebrew Bible was collected and organized during the exile. Also, this is when synagogues became vital parts of Jewish community. Even the style of faith that developed in this era, a wrestling with questions about God’s provision and God’s relationship to human flourishing and suffering, came about in part because of people’s responses to making a life in Babylon until that time when they could return to Judah, some 60 years later. When Jewish people didn’t have a temple, they developed ways to continue their traditions. I don’t wish terrible circumstances on people, but I’m grateful to be reminded of the life that can rise up in spite of them.
When we are tempted to be Babylon, may we turn away from destruction, so that we no longer ask people to survive the unlivable. And, when we are in exile, may we remember that God is still with us, helping us create the legacies that allow us and our descendants to survive.
Sources referenced in today’s sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.