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. 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 Shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its Shalom you will find your Shalom.
If you were following along with the reading this morning in the pew bibles, you may have noticed that I changed one of the words in the reading. In the pew bibles, you would have come across the word “welfare” in my reading, I said “Shalom”. — Now I know that congregations just love it when pastors start diving into the language of scripture, I mean what’s more exciting than word studies and parsing out ancient grammar, right, but — if I could be allowed to indulge in this personal passion for a moment— I changed the word from welfare to shalom because in the hebrew, that is the word that is used. And my guess is that if folks know one word in ancient hebrew, it might just be the word shalom. But the word in the pew bibles is welfare? Doesn’t shalom mean peace? Thats one of the things I love about this text, particularly as translated, it engages the reader in the deeper meaning of Shalom beyond peace, specifically what God’s peace might look like. I also love this passage because it is a bold message of hope and an intense reflection of the Good News of God.
To fully appreciate this text, I want to make sure everyone is fully aware of the context of this passage. I am sure many here don’t need the extra tutoring, but again, if you can humor me for a moment. Jeremiah was writing just before and during the time of the Babylonian exile. Just before the exile, in approximately 608 BC, as the babylonians were starting to assert their power in Israel, two factions were starting to emerge, those who wished to acquiesce to Babylon and those who wished to fight. Jeremiah wrote of God’s promise to Israel, a promise of always being with them, and that God’s history was longer than that of any single person, that to appreciate the movements of god, one must think long term. Also the thought was that resisting the Babylonians, a power far too great for the people of Israel to defeat, would only further enrage them and would result in greater destruction. — As time went on, the resistors held the most sway, and, as Jeremiah predicted, Babylon took their revenge, destroying the city of Jerusalem and taking about about 20,000 of the 75,000 isrealites into captivity.
In our reading for today Jeremiah is writing to those who have found themselves in exile. Unsurprisingly, many of the exiles were keeping to themselves, focusing on maintaining jewish tradition, and Jewish families.
Which is why today's reading must have come as a huge shock. Being told to embrace the cities were they have found themselves, to let their children marry foreigners, to plant gardens. In other words Jeremiah is telling them to not keep to themselves, and maybe most boldly, he is proclaiming to them to seek the shalom of the city where they live because in its shalom, one finds their own shalom. The animosity many of the exiles would have felt towards the Babylonians, there is a chance this might have sounded like blasphemy, it surely must have offended many!
But why would Jeremiah say this? what would have been gained by it?
Imagine the lives of the exiles, what it might have been like to try and hold on to the traditions in a foreign land. The words of Psalm 137 ring clear as testament to the challenges of this time:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
And yet Jeremiah has the gall to tell them to embrace the places where they currently live?
I think today’s current state of immense political division shines some light onto why Jeremiah might have said something that seemed to stand in such contrast to common logic of the time
Today’s division, at the surface it appears political, but it is so challenging because it goes beyond simple ideology and into identity and identity is strongly emotional, which makes it hard to have wholly rational conversations across the divides that exist. This emotionality helps explain the vast gulf that exists between particular sources of news, vastly different sources of entertainment, even vastly different understandings of history, so much so that opposing sides aren’t always aware of the other side’s sources of information. The jewish people, as exiles in Babylon, would have been in a similar situation with regards to their babylonian neighbors, it would have been easy for disagreements to not simply be varying opinions, but the difference most likely would have been deeper, it would have been emotional, it would have led to feelings similar to today: how can they be soooo wrong.
So its not hard to imagine the similar kind of divisions between exiles and Babylonians as the kind of intense divisions that occur today, and look at what today’s divisions have led to. They have led to increased stress and volatility, in fact there have been news reports on the increase in use of therapists and massage and yoga, a measurable sign of increased stress, there is increased friction, beyond that, there has been an inability to get meaningful work done down the road in the capitol, and an election season that, at times, has bordered on Jerry Springer levels of absurdity.
I have to imagine the exiles would have experienced that same stress, a self destructive bitterness, as they would have looked to those around them and thought how wrong the Babylonians were, it would have been a difficult and challenging life. Add on to this a longing to return home, and depression and anxiety must have run rampant.
In something akin to the Gospel message, Jeremiah offers them another way. Jeremiah is telling them the division is unnecessary, that they can settle down, they can live their lives, they can even interact with the foreigners that surround them. That in the city’s shalom they can find their own.
Which brings us full circle, back to the translation of Shalom as welfare. I like that the translators of the bible didn’t translate Shalom in this instance to peace, because Jeremiah isn’t really talking about peace the way we understand it today. Peace implies the absent of conflict, but shalom, shalom means something more than that. Shalom has within it the idea of completeness, the way God is complete. That all are provided for.
Hopefully without getting to side tracked here, one of the challenges of the Gospel message to love one’s neighbor is that sometimes one’s neighbor is a jerk, and isn’t easy to love, or is so different that it is hard to figure out how to show them Love. And yet the message of Jesus, it is a message that calls all of God’s creation into unity, into Shalom, where different people exist and can disagree and might even fight with one another every so once in a while, but still find ways to support one another.
So when Jeremiah is talking about the Shalom of the City, the welfare of the City, Jeremiah is talking about the unity of the place where one lives, and that community, — it could be a building, it could be a block, a street, a town, a county, a state, a nation, even the world. Seeking the Shalom of the city mirrors Paul’s call to a ministry of reconciliation, that communities learn to live in unity despite their differences, and to support one another because of that unity.
And what is most profound here, is this idea that in the city’s shalom the individual finds their own shalom, their own completeness, their own welfare, their own balance. This is a profound statement, it signals the deeper unity we have, that when one divides themselves from the world, they become divided internally, their spiritual health fails, which can lead to deteriorated mental and/or physical health as well. Internal Shalom is reflected in External Shalom and vice versa. To put it another way, if one seeks the Love of God in the world, they will feel the Love of God more fully within themselves.
Or think of it this way, to go into the world and serve, particularly serving those that exist outside of one’s known circles, to serve the stranger, the foreigner, the outsider, in expanding Shalom or Unity, one finds greater internal peace, and when one finds greater internal peace, they are better prepared to extend external peace, unity, compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness. It is a positive feedback loop.
It could be argued that the Mainline protestant church is in a bit of an exile, it seems like the views of the mainline church are forgotten, unheard, ignored even. Mainline churches around the country are shrinking, as young people are finding other spiritual paths outside the church. Jeremiah’s words echo for the Mainline Church today as well, for churches recede into conversations about identity, conversations focused on the way things used to be, with an eye towards the past, then division, bitterness, disunity, they will prevail, but if mainline churches can find ways to focus on the shalom of the city around them, to focus on their unity with a world that can sometimes seem at odds with theology, if mainline churches can find ways to serve and share the Love of God, of being forces of reconciliation, of God’s Peace, an admittedly sloppy thing sometimes, then in that action, churches will find their own shalom, their own unity, their own unity, their own welfare.
So hear the good news of today's reading; fearlessly seek the shalom, the welfare, the unity of the communities where you live, for in its shalom, you shall find your own shalom. Amen.