The prophet Jeremiah called God’s people in exile in Babylon to seek the wellbeing of their Babylonian captors. That sounds an awful lot like Jesus’ call to love our enemies. Where does the will and the power to do that come from?
In search of an answer, here is a sermon I preached for an ecumenical worship service gathering people from all around the city of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was part of a summer series on the theme of being the peace of the city.
The Power to Seek Peace
A Sermon on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and Ephesians 2:13-18
With allusions to Psalm 137 and Luke 6:27-36
Rocky Mount Summer Community Worship Service
Sunday, July 31, 2016
St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church
Somewhere in Babylon around the year 593, a congregation of homesick exiles from Jerusalem was listening to the reading of a letter from the prophet Jeremiah back home. They could not believe their ears! Say what, Jeremiah? Put down roots in Babylon? Seek the shalom—the welfare, the wellbeing, the peace—of Babylon? Pray for the Babylonians?
Imagine the murmuring! Jeremiah, they brought us here against our will! They worship gods with names like Marduk. Everything is foreign to us here. These people have hurt us as deeply as ever we could be hurt! Pray blessing and peace on Babylon?
Jeremiah, you know not! What we really want is for somebody to come in here and make the Babylonians suffer, pay them back. See, we do have a prayer, and it goes like this: blessed be the one who takes your children and smashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137).
Meanwhile the letter reader’s voice was continuing: because… in Babylon’s wellbeing you will find your wellbeing.
Jeremiah’s call sounds an awful lot like the call Jesus gave his followers. Jesus said, “But I say to you that are listening, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.”
There’s no question about it: God was asking a very hard thing of the exiles. Did they heed Jeremiah’s words? Well, those weren’t the only words they were hearing. On both sides of the desert that lay between Jerusalem and Babylon, people like Hananiah were telling them what they wanted to hear. Hananiah said, “This whole business is going to last two years tops, and then Babylon is going to be defeated.” Hananiah and others got people thinking they could rebel against Babylon and succeed. They tried, whereupon Babylon struck even more ferociously a few years later in 587, and that really was IT for Judah and Jerusalem. Their beloved temple lay in ruins, and still more people were carried off into exile. That’s when Jeremiah himself disappeared.
But there are signs that some of the exiles did listen to Jeremiah. The stories of Daniel and his friends suggest to me that some tried to, anyway.
God was asking a very hard thing of the exiles. Seek the shalom of the place where I have sent you, which in this case very much means love your enemy. But even when you’re not outright enemies, the call to seek the peace and wellbeing of others is still a challenge.
It was a challenge when God called Jews and Gentiles into one church. This wasn’t the way they were raised. They were raised to keep separate. Don’t share a table. Don’t break bread together. Sometimes literal walls kept them apart, like the walls that kept Gentiles out on the margins of the temple in Jerusalem. There was a history of name calling. No, it wasn’t fun to be called “the uncircumcision.” Back up a few verses in Ephesians 2 where Paul acknowledged that. Combine these people into one family? Much easier said than done. Old attitudes and divisions persisted, and the early church struggled.
And here comes Jeremiah with that same call to us now: seek the shalom, the peace, the welfare, the wellbeing—it means all those things—seek the shalom of the city where I have placed you. You on one side of the railroad tracks and you on the other side of the railroad tracks, seek the peace and wellbeing of Rocky Mount where I have placed you.
And there sure is an awful lot of healing and wellbeing to be sought, for our neighbors who don’t have a decent roof over their heads, or enough food on their plates, or an adequate income. For our neighbors who fear for their and their children’s safety, and for our neighbors enslaved to addictions, and for so many more needs that cry out for healing shalom. And as we work together on issues great and small, including controversial issues like event centers and school funding, we do it knowing there is an uneasy history in the background.
No, even when people are at their best, and even when the circumstances are optimal, it is not an easy thing that God is asking, and we know it. Seeking the peace of the city means work, even in the best and happiest of times. Where does the strength to seek peace and keep on seeking it come from? Where does the strength to pray and keep on praying come from?
You need to remember this, Paul wrote to Jews and Gentiles as they struggled. Jesus Christ IS our peace. In his flesh and in his blood he has brought Jews and Gentiles both back together in God’s embrace. He has broken down the wall that separated us. He has brought those who were far away near. Now there is no near and far. Now there are no outsiders and insiders. Now there is no us and them. There is only us, one new humanity, one body with access to God in one Spirit.
Jesus Christ IS our peace. His is the blood that gives life to this one body. His life is in us. There is power in his blood flowing through this body, flowing through our lives, making us blood kin.
There is only one family gathered here today—the family of God. There is only one body in here today—the body of Christ, gathered to share one bread and one cup. There is only one blood type here today—type J, Jesus. Jesus! And he is the source of the life, and the power, and the will to seek the peace of the city where God has placed us.
In that power, in the power of Jesus, we can heed Jeremiah’s words: seek peace and keep on seeking peace, even when we have been hurt, even when we find ourselves like the exiles weeping by the rivers of Babylon. In that power we can pursue wholeness for the whole community, and keep on pursuing wholeness, even when we are tired and frustrated, when communication is hard, and there seems not to be an ounce of patience left, and when our trust levels feel low. In the power of Jesus, we can pray a blessing on the whole community, even when we are angry and feel like praying the end of Psalm 137 against somebody. In that power we can do what Jesus said: love our foes as well as our friends, and keep on doing it.
When others insist on hate, in Jesus we’ve got the power to insist on love. When others put up walls to keep people out, with Jesus, we open our hearts and welcome people in. When others tell us to be very afraid and to base our actions on fear, we trust Jesus our Savior all the more, and we dare to do bold things for his sake. The power of the blood is here, in us, and it is working.
Sisters and brothers, this is our call: seek the shalom of the city, seek the wellbeing of the whole Rocky Mount region where I have sent you, says the Lord. Pray to the Lord on its behalf. For in its shalom, you will find your shalom. In its welfare you will find your welfare.
Seek peace and keep on seeking it. Work for the wellbeing of the city and keep on working. Pray and keep on praying. Love and keep on loving.
Do it through the power of the blood of Jesus Christ.
Do it in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
For more thoughts, see this post: You shall love your neighborhood.
Photograph by Harris Walker