By Rev. J.C. Austin
The United States is often portrayed as a highly mobile and even rootless society, especially among young people. And there’s no question that perspective is deeply ingrained in our society. So many of our stories are about going from wherever you grow up and making it big somewhere else. And that seems to have been increased over the past few decades as travel has become more inexpensive and common, and technology made it easier to stay connected with people from a distance.
But, as it turns out, that is not the case. In fact, internal migration in the United States has fallen significantly since 1980, according to research published by the Federal Reserve. There appear to be a number of reasons for this shift in our national identity, but one of the biggest factors is class: those who are better educated and come from households with higher incomes are much more mobile, because they have the skills and networks to land jobs in cities across the country.
Paradoxically, though, this can also reduce mobility if you’re married: dual income couples are less likely to move because of the potential disruption to the other spouse. And the other major factor inhibiting mobility is family responsibility; this is more and more the case as the Baby Boomers grow older and require greater attention from their children. And, in fact, those factors are related: the dual-income couple often offers care to the older generation while also relying on their parents to provide childcare to some degree. So even in what has often been regarded as the most mobile society in history, where you are and where you are from plays a significant role in who you are and who you will (and even can) become.
That’s why, I suppose, that the question “where are you from?” is one of the standard pleasantries we ask when we meet people for the first time. In the United States, it is probably second only to asking “what do you do?” in those situations, but the rest of the world thinks that question is a bit odd, because most people in the rest of the world don’t consider their work their primary identity. For them and even for us, “where are you from” says much more about who you are, what you believe, how you behave, and what your life experiences are like, because all of those things are forged in some kind of unifying cultural community.
Of course, the actual meanings that we interpret from how people answer that question can be pretty subjective. I remember when I was in seminary, I would go back to Georgia and Tennessee on visits. When people asked me where I was from, if I told people I lived in Princeton, they would say, “Oooooo!” appreciatively. But if I said I lived in New Jersey, they would respond with a noncommittal “Ohhhhh,” with the kind of slow head nod that in the South means, “that sounds terrible but I’m too polite to say so out loud.”
Princeton had the connotation of exciting opportunity; but New Jersey had the connotation of exile, of being forced away from my home to a place where I had to live but where I would never really belong and surely would not want to even if I could. Of course, they would have been very surprised to find that not only is New Jersey quite lovely in many places, but that the people there would have the same reaction if I told them I was from Tennessee or Georgia!
Now, multiply those dynamics of exile a few thousand times, and you start to understand at least something of what’s going on with the people of Israel as Jeremiah is writing his letter described in this passage. First, the kingdom of Israel of David and Solomon’s time no longer exists; it split into a northern and a southern kingdom almost four hundred years before Jeremiah, and the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians almost two hundred years earlier.
In this passage, Jeremiah is writing from Jerusalem, the capital of what had been the southern kingdom of Judah, but which was now a smoking heap of rubble because the Babylonians had conquered the kingdom and destroyed the capital, including the temple, where God had promised to be with them. But, as you heard in the passage, he is writing to all the exiles who were taken into captivity by the Babylonians, literally forced from their homes to live in the land of their conquerors, where they would never really belong. The Babylonians didn’t take everybody, though; they took the people who had some real value to them: the political and economic and religious elites, the blacksmiths and entertainers and artisans. But they left the shepherds and farmers behind, and they certainly had no use for someone like Jeremiah, whose prophetic laments would make a Mississippi Delta bluesman seem like a sunny optimist.
And yet Jeremiah actually is delivering good news here, from the ruins of Jerusalem, to the exiles of Babylon, but it might be hard to hear at first, especially for his original audience. Because part of what he is saying is that God is not speaking through the exiled prophets there in Babylon: “do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.”
Those prophets, not surprisingly, are telling exiled political and economic and cultural leadership what they want to hear; partly to curry favor and partly to deflect blame, since it was their job to advise those groups in the first place and they were the same prophets that had been proclaiming that the Babylonian army encircling Jerusalem to destroy it, was simply going to go away at some point and everything would go back to normal without them having to make any changes, sacrifices, or hard decisions.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, had repeatedly warned for years that the Babylonian danger was real and that their refusal to recognize it and to change their behavior when it still could have made a difference meant that now they were going to have to endure a lengthy exile, rather than a quick and miraculous rescue of just two years that was prophesied by the false prophets. You just have to have faith, the false prophets said, and you will be home before you know it.
But Jeremiah knows that false hope is not faith; it is distraction, it is delusion. It takes you away from faithfulness rather than leading you towards it, because you make your decisions and base your actions on something that isn’t real, isn’t true. If they believe it’s just two years, that’s not true, and they’re just going to sit there watching the clock, watching the horizon for God’s miraculous army to come and deliver them from the clutches of the Babylonians.
Which is why Jeremiah needs to not only make clear that the prophets and their prophecies are false, but also to make clear what the truth is. It’s going to be seventy years, Jeremiah clarifies, not two, which must have been a terrible blow to those reading or hearing his letter, if they finally believed him now. They would spend seventy years in a place they didn’t want to be, in a place they would never belong. They would spend seventy years cut off from Jerusalem, which they believed meant seventy years cut off from God’s presence, since that was where God had promised to dwell with God’s people. Seventy years meant an entire generation would be born and die in exile before they would ever get home; certainly none of those leaders who were receiving the letter would ever see home again.
And in understanding that truth, they can also understand that there is good news here in God’s word through Jeremiah; unexpected good news, but good news all the same. “Build houses and live in them,” Jeremiah tells them, conveying God’s wishes for them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” In other words, God is telling them to plan on sticking around in Babylon for a while, but also telling them not to simply stick around; not to simply eke out a survival on the scraps of life that they could scrounge in that place, unwilling to invest in a life there in exile when all they really wanted to do was get home.
Don’t just hang on until you can get back home, God is telling them; make a home right here, right now. It’s not enough to just stay alive; you need to actually live. “Take wives and have sons and daughters,” God continues; “take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage so that they may have sons and daughters. Multiply there, and do not decrease.” That’s life, that’s the essence of what it means to live as a people, with families, one generation with another. It’s not enough to just stay alive; you need to actually live.
And then, most shockingly, God tells them “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.” The word “welfare” there is an unfortunate translation, because we tend to use that word most often to describe the thin system of economic safeguards that we provide here in the United States to give those who are poor a little bit more to sustain life. But the actual Hebrew word there is shalom, which is usually translated into English as “peace.” And even that is too thin of a word, because of how we tend to define peace merely as an absence of conflict. But the Biblical notion of peace is a very thick concept, with layers that include justice, abundance, completeness, harmony, tranquility. It’s not enough to just stay alive; you have to really live, and that means living in a way that seeks shalom for your place of exile, not just for you, because your shalom is inextricably connected to it.
If you want to have justice, abundance, completeness, harmony, tranquility, you can’t have those things in isolation; they are all inherently communal realities. We have both the opportunity and the responsibility to pursue God’s shalom wherever we find ourselves, and by doing so we will receive that shalom not simply for ourselves, but for the whole community of which we are a part. Which means that we do, in fact, belong there, not because of who we are or where we are from, but because God is with us there, giving us purpose and power to be cultivators of shalom for ourselves and others.
Because that is what God has intended all along, even when we may have lost sight of it, Jeremiah says: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare [your shalom] and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” And so those houses they are building and gardens they are planting and spouses they are marrying and children they are having and even the welfare they are seeking for the land in which they are living means that they are, truly living, not just staying alive. They are really living into a future with hope; they are, in a very real sense, being exiled home, building a home and sharing hospitality now in exile, not simply waiting to go home someday in the future.
Right now, I am speaking to you as the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem in exile. For almost five months, you have been exiled from this building because of the unacceptable danger of gathering in person during the pandemic. As most of you know from our email and social media communications, this week the Session decided that we need to stay in exile from this place for the foreseeable future, which is clearly much longer than we expected.
The good news is that it’s certainly not going to be seventy years; I hope it won’t be anything close to even seventy weeks when our exile ends! And yet in these five months we have already learned some of what the people of Judah learned over seventy years. We have learned that while we miss our beloved temple, being separated from the temple does not mean being separated from God or each other. God is with us in exile, in some ways more powerfully than ever, and has helped us to build a home here, a home with Facebook Live to give us a foundation in worship, and Zoom to give us windows to lean out of and talk with one another. It is a home where we can welcome one another, work and worship with one another, support each other and our neighbors, plant and tend together the gardens of learning and fellowship and care that sustain our minds and bodies and spirits that allow us not just to stay alive, but to truly live.
And I believe God is calling us to truly seek the welfare of the city of Bethlehem in new ways, and that in its welfare is our welfare. We are not going to fall into the trap of watching the clock and watching the horizon, of sitting and waiting until we can physically be together again, waiting until we are home again. We are together right now; we are home right now. We are called and empowered right now, to seek and share God’s shalom with each other and the city in which we are living, right now. Which is what we’ve already been doing in many ways; through our prayers, our meal ministry, our Racial Justice ministry, through other things that we are exploring and contemplating and looking towards. Things that will continue to give us life and to share that life with the city in which we find ourselves. Because our welfare, our shalom, is bound up with that, and vice versa.
And in answering that calling, we will continue to find ourselves truly at home, truly alive together, filled more and more with God’s shalom the more we share it with others, whether we are in this temple or not. That is the future with hope that God is giving us, has already given us that we are living into, even now. Thanks be to God for the gift of that future, of that calling, of our home together in exile, and of each and every one of you.