Fourth Sunday after Pentecost June 28, 2020
Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister
Jer 28:5-9; Ps 89:1-4, 15-18
Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42
Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing;
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness
For I am persuaded that your love is established forever;
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.
Over the last five weeks, a remarkable transformation has occurred. Our silent cities have been rocked with cries, our empty streets filled with marching feet, our fearful quarantine erupting in protest. Even our social media feeds have been transformed from a sea of pictures of sourdough and banana bread and memes about working from home to a series of jarring images and videos. I don’t know about you, but I am a bit fearful each time I log in or turn to the news: what horror will I have to confront this time?
The prophet Jeremiah speaks to such a time in today’s rather cryptic reading. It’s cryptic because it lacks context, but what it says is striking enough: Do not yearn for a false peace.
The setting is complex. Jeremiah is preaching in the early years of King Zedekiah, the last king to rule Judah as a tributary kingdom of Babylon before its final destruction by that power. Jeremiah has been warning Judah for several years of the destruction to come, but the royal prophets — the ones on the king’s payroll — have been counter-prophesying, claiming that Judah will be free of Babylon in only two years. To which Jeremiah replies, May it be so. But the true prophets have all prophesied that the consequences of your actions will be terrible.
Those words sit uneasily with me today, because the tension between those two prophecies looks a bit too much like the way my own society (the United States) has wanted to deal with racism. Every few years, or every few decades, an incident occurs which appalls and horrifies. We pour into the streets; we demand change; we do, in fact, obtain a few surface changes; and we allow ourselves to believe that we have addressed the problem. And then the eyes of our reporters turn elsewhere, and we subside into complacency, and our neighbors continue to live in pain and in fear.
I say that’s the pattern in the United States, but I suspect that things have not been so different here. Last winter, the country was paralyzed by protests on behalf of the Wetsuweten, but the trains are running again and the gas line they opposed continues to be built. Always the powers that be seek to run out the clock on civil unrest: let people have their say, until their voices fade away.
That’s why Jeremiah’s next move is so important. After having preached the destruction of his people, the prophet goes on, in the next chapter, to do something remarkable: he sends a letter to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon, with a message which is one of the most important in Scripture: “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.” (Jer 29:4-7)
Did you hear it? In those words, the Lord instructs, not just the Hebrew exiles, but all of us — instructs us how to work for God over the long haul. He tells the Hebrews that their time of struggle will not be two years, or even ten, but seventy: seventy years in an alien culture, far from home. He tells them and us how to live within the constraints of a society and a life we would not have chosen. And the Lord’s words are simple words: Grow where you are planted. Seek the welfare of those around you. Seek their welfare even if you do not like them. Work for the good of the society even if it is alien to your values. For in its welfare, you will find your own.
These words are a call to maturity and to commitment. Building homes, getting married, having children: these are projects which unfold over a lifetime. And — more radical — they are a call to embrace imperfection. At each step, the person who builds a home, nurtures a relationship, raises a child aims for what is possible, not for what is perfect. The parents of an autistic child may yearn for a cure— for that child to wake up neurotypical, no longer troubled by unusual constraints — but in the absence of such a treatment, they work for their child to be able to function well: to be able to form friendships and to learn and to engage with the world around him. Even so, in working to transform society, we cannot fall prey to a self-defeating kind of purity, one which disdains to use the tools at hand until better ones exist, or which walks off in a snit if all is not achieved tomorrow. The racism which is embedded in our laws and our history is of long duration, and it will not magically fall away tomorrow. But if good people keep working for change, even if the changes are incremental, the incremental changes pile up.
If it seems strange to you that I am comparing the work of protesters to the relationship between a devoted parent and a child, that contrast points to the heart of the mystery we are living: these strident voices, these marching feet, are the language of love. They are the form love for our neighbor takes when our neighbor is being treated in ways which are callous and cruel. Earlier this week, the mother of my godchild F texted me that she was once again writing a letter to F’s future teacher at a new school, trying to get the teacher on the side of a child who was non-binary and not neurotypical. She wrote, “Sometimes I feel fatigued by these things, though I’m not saying I need F to be different, just wish the world were not so hard on him. Let the advocacy begin again.”
That’s where the words of St. Paul come in, those jarring words about being a slave to God. When I was in seminary, I had a Pentecostal classmate, a Black woman, who was deeply troubled that St. Paul had never condemned the existence of slavery. She eventually wrote a paper arguing that Paul had been so attached to slavery as a metaphor for the spiritual life that he was unwilling to examine the reality of it. It is a metaphor with which I am deeply uncomfortable, but it is also pervasive in Scripture, so let’s examine it for a moment.
The essential thing about a slave is that he is not free. A hired servant can, if she chooses, quit a job which is unpleasant or too difficult, or which asks her to do things she finds offensive. But a slave must do whatever the master requires. We see this easily in the case of addiction (to a substance, to power, to material possessions, to sex): the addict finds that the addiction takes over his life, until everything else — work, relationships, the care of his body — is controlled by that one craving. The inevitable result is the creeping spread of dishonesty through every aspect of his life: lies, cheating, sneaking, hiding, and denial become the everyday focus of his attention. The person who is a slave to unrighteousness devotes his creativity to doing evil, not because he wishes to, but because evil controls him.
That’s why St. Paul’s metaphor has teeth: it reminds us that we who seek to follow Christ are called to be every bit as creative and resourceful and determined in serving God as others are in serving evil. To be honest, we rarely manifest that kind of undivided focus on doing good. Most of us (and I include myself here) give God some of our time, some of our attention. A few of us give rather a lot of focus. But slaves of righteousness do not get to pick the terms of our service. Rather, we are to do God’s will in all things, even when it is unpleasant or difficult or requires us to challenge our own assumptions. We are to spread light and truth and love in every aspect of our life; that’s what it means to be the light of the world.
We see the deceptive power of evil to corrupt what it touches in all the evasions and half-truths around race: pseudo-scientific arguments about people having different capacities; politicians claiming that people need to take personal responsibility (which they do) without acknowledging that the conditions into which you were born shape your ability to take that agency; claims that if “they” were willing to be more like “us,” everything would be fine (as if “our” way were laid down by God to be the normative path for every human being, even when “our” way is the way of oppression); deflections which point our attention to places where things are worse, seeking to lull us into complacency about what needs to be addressed where we are. In the States right now, we also see the results of sixty years of coordinated, creative, determined work aimed at undoing the achievements of the Civil Rights era, not by getting legal equality off the books, but by reshaping the terms of voting, work, housing, and policing so that those promises of equality would become irrelevant. The forces of evil do not rest.
But the good news is that God is on our side, if we are on God’s. And with the power of God behind us, even our smallest gestures are amplified by divine power. During my final year in seminary, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, reducing those towers of steel and glass to a massive heap of burning rubble. Over the next few months, love poured into that site. People sent cards and teddy bears, chocolate and prayers. They came and offered their time: thousands of them. And what they did was so little: They cooked eggs. They handed out cups of cold water. They managed to smile at the rescue workers, even when they were weary enough to drop. Tiny, ordinary things, which seemed so frail against that burning heap of ruin. But in a few short months, the love was still there, but that burning heap of rubble was gone.
That’s how God works: God uses our constancy in small things to bring about great good. God uses our imperfect gestures to bend the world toward God’s kingdom. God’s love is like that: it evokes our own. As St. Paul urges, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all.” (Gal 6:9-10)