Do you have a place in your life that you can call home?
What is it about that place makes it feel like home?
I want you to keep this idea of home in mind as we take a look at this morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Jeremiah. You’ll see that idea of home emerging as a theme within the text.
This passage comes to us from the same era of Jewish history that we talked about last week: the Babylonian Exile. To recap: in the year 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire invaded and conquered the kingdom of Judah southern Israel. Many of the people who lived there, especially the leaders and members of the upper classes, were enslaved and taken to Babylon, where they would spend the next fifty years or so in captivity and servitude. We talked last Sunday about how it was during this time that Judaism as we now know it (i.e. people meeting weekly to study the Torah in synagogues with rabbis) took shape.
One thing I didn’t mention last week is that it was also during this time that the scattered fragments of poetry and campfire legends created by their nomadic Hebrew ancestors were first gathered together to form the beginning of what we now refer to as the Bible. So, this half century or so of exile, while difficult and painful, contributed a lot to the development of the Jewish religious tradition (and, by extension, the Christian and Islamic traditions as well).
In the selection we read this week, the prophet Jeremiah is writing a letter to the exiled Jews living in Babylon. He knows that their hopes have been dashed and their hearts are broken. In his letter, Jeremiah is trying to encourage them and help them face reality. In his letter, he says:
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.
In substance, what Jeremiah is saying to them is, “Hey folks, I know things seem pretty bad right now. This situation is far from perfect. It would be so easy to just live in denial or put your hope in some kind of ‘quick fix’ scheme, but in the end, those things really won’t do you any good. You’re in this for the long haul. The thing to do now is settle down and make the best of it. Make this place your home for now (as crazy as that sounds).”
He talks about building houses, planting gardens, getting married, and having kids. But he doesn’t stop there; he keeps going:
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.
That word (i.e. welfare) is a very important one. Some English versions have translated it as peace. In Hebrew (the language in which this passage was originally written), the word is shalom, linguistically related to the Arabic salaam. Shalom is usually translated as peace, but it means so much more than that. Shalom means: peace, wholeness, harmony, well-being, and oneness. This is a powerful idea.
And keep in mind who Jeremiah is talking to: the people in exile, people who had just recently seen their own homes and their own capital city burned to the ground, and suddenly Jeremiah is telling them to work for the well-being of their enemy’s city. That’s a tall order indeed.
“Make this place your home,” Jeremiah is saying, “Work for it’s well-being, for in its well-being you will find your well-being.”
Looking at it objectively, it seems ludicrous that the economy of God should work in this way. We rational animals would much prefer a God who says, “An eye for an eye.” That at least makes sense to us, but that kind of logic leads to a dead-end. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” The great prophets of the world’s religions, from Jeremiah to Jesus to the Buddha to Gandhi to Dr. King, have all agreed that the cycle of violence must come to an end if our species is to survive, and it should come to an end with us. We have to realize, as Jeremiah says in the Bible, that in the welfare of our enemies we will find our own welfare. Thousands of years later, Dr. Martin Luther King said it like this: “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. What affects one directly affects all indirectly. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we, as people of faith, are truly going to make the best of an imperfect situation, if we are going to make this place our home, then we need to take this truth to heart.
I saw an interview on TV this week that absolutely took my breath away in relation to this. This interview happened on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart (who I like to think of as my generation’s Walter Kronkite) was interviewing a 16 year old Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Malala, you may remember, is the teenage girl who was shot in the head by Taliban extremists for speaking out in support of education for girls in her home country. She survived this assassination attempt and continues to speak out for her cause in Pakistan.
When Jon Stewart asked her what she would do if a member of the Taliban tried to shoot her again, Malala replied, “I would tell him how important education is and that I would even want education for your children as well… That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”
This 16 year old Muslim girl, Malala, perfectly embodies the point that the 2,500 year old Jewish man, Jeremiah, was trying to make when he said, “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.” To paraphrase again: “Make the best of this bad situation. Make this place your home, and not just your home, but their home as well.”
In this life, all of us find ourselves stuck in circumstances that are less than ideal. Even if our situation isn’t as dire as those Jews who lived in exile in Babylon, we can still find something wrong if we look for it. God’s invitation to us is to make our home in this place and time, imperfect as it is. We’re meant to make a life for ourselves, not just a living. And this life is not just meant for us, but for all. We are to work for our neighbor’s well-being as we work for our own. In their welfare, we will find our welfare.
We can let the cycles of violence stop with us, rather than continuing for another round of “an eye for an eye” (the game that no one wins). We can live in God’s kingdom of heaven on earth. We can make a home here and now with Jeremiah who said, “seek the welfare of [your enemy’s] city… for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
We can make a home with Dr. King who said, “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
We can make a home with Malala who said, “I would even want education for [Taliban] children as well.”
We can make a home with Jesus who said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Let us make this home together…