Seeking the Welfare of Our City

Text: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

29 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

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Reflection: Seeking the Welfare of Our City

Jeremiah was pretty much a prophet of doom when no one— especially those in the upper echelons of Judean society— wanted to hear it. Jeremiah’s warnings happened. Judah was overtaken by the Babylon. Many were killed in the sieges of Jerusalem, and many were exiled to Babylon, especially (but not limited to) those who were prominent citizens. They were marched nearly 900 miles from Judah to Babylon to live as conquered foreigners. Throughout the story of Jeremiah, there are constantly false prophet— those claiming that everything is fine and will be alright— saying the things that the people they speak to most want to hear. Apparently, this trend continues in Babylon. Jeremiah writes this letter, probably from Mizpah, where he ended up after the exile— he was not taken to Babylon, and in it warns of those who are speaking falsely— those claiming that this will be over soon. Jeremiah writes with a very different hope: That they are called to settle down. They are to build and marry and live. They are to not cloister, but to seek the shalom— the welfare or peace or wholeness— of Babylon, and in that, they too will experience shalom. 

The prophet Ezekiel writes about the exile, too. And he has a vision that is very strange—as is the entire book of Ezekiel. The Temple is destroyed in Jerusalem. The place where God was found. But Ezekiel envisions God’s glory on a throne that looks something like helicopter propellers ascending and traveling East, the direction of the Jewish exiles. God goes with them in their exile. God lays judgment to and leaves the place of comfort where they were and follows in the direction of the exiled.

I thought about exile this week, and about peace and welfare, and about the Hallmark-y Jeremiah 29:11— For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Our definitions of peace are weak. Our understanding of God’s hope and future are often weak as well. I had those words on a cutesy cross— which is a really odd thing in and of itself— in my dorm room during college. Was I exiled in the stress of my paper writing? No. I have most heard these verses used to speak of the current state of the mostly white, mostly affluent, Protestant, mainline church. Are we truly exiled? As an institution, no. Nor have many within those churches. I will speak at least for myself that I do not have the trauma of experiencing violent loss of life around me. I have never been displaced from a home. I have not felt like a foreigner, a strange, an enemy in the midst of my daily life. I have not been looked upon with fear or disdain. Perhaps you have faced these types of exile.

And in our city, in our nation there is a lack of welfare, of wholeness, of peace. There is exile present, even if it is not felt by everyone. The shooting death of Antwon Rose II by a police officer, who has been acquitted of all criminal charges, is not only a sign of exile in our backyard but also must be a call to seek the welfare of this place— not welfare only for those for whom this is the most livable city in the country— but the type of welfare that is tangible hope and a future for those who have faced exile within it. 

Jeremiah’s letter does not give a blueprint for those who are not in exile themselves. It does not perfectly map our current time and place. But when we read it in light of what we know of Jesus: God who choose exile as a poor, Palestinian Jewish man in occupied Roman territory. Who choose to spend his time with the most exiled and seek shalom with them. Who called those violently opposed to the unjust systems around them and those fully complacent to a new way of being as his followers. Who answered the request of a Roman soldier, yet shamed Rome in his death at their hands. In Jesus, God became the exiled and showed the way to shalom, inviting those who followed to lay down violence, to lay down privilege, to lay down wealth and all ladder-climbing, to create a Kingdom where the least are the greatest and the greatest the least. A shalom-Kingdom.

If we follow Jesus, we must also strive to seek the welfare of our city, to seek the Kingdom of God here and now, not alone or as leaders, but as those seeking to follow and walk with the ones who have experienced exile. Because the flip side of Jeremiah’s words are also true— It is in their welfare that the city will find its welfare.