This sermon was preached on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 23C: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; and Luke 17:11-19. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
How do we maintain our established convictions and carry our old confessions into new, uncertain, and sometimes unsettling circumstances? It’s an unavoidable question, one which we answer all the time, even if we aren’t aware that we are doing so. It is the question to which both our Old Testament lesson and our reading from the Pastoral Epistles offer answers and, interestingly but not surprisingly (this is, after all, the Bible), the answers are contradictory.
First, we have the prophet Jeremiah writing to the exiles taken away by the Babylonians. If you were here last week, you remember that early in the 6th Century before Christ, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had invaded Judah, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and carted away (as Jeremiah puts it) “the elders, the priests, and the prophets,” in other words the political and religious leaders of the nation.
Now Jeremiah had absolutely no authority to write to them; he was not an official prophet; he was not a part of the establishment. Jeremiah was from a village called Anathoth in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. He was an illiterate, small-town boy who had come to the city hoping to make it big as a prophet but things hadn’t turned out well. He had tried preaching in the courtyard of the Temple, but “when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, ‘You shall die!'” (Jer. 26:8) Later, when he attempts preaching again, the city “officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him in the house of the secretary Jonathan, for it had been made a prison. Thus Jeremiah was put in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there many days.” (Jer. 37:5-6) Apparently, he attracted only one follower, a scribe named Baruch who recorded his sermons, wrote down his story, and took his dictation. (See Jer. 36)
Nonetheless, Jeremiah takes it upon himself to write a letter to the exiles. Last week we recited Psalm 137 and you will recall that it was not a particular pleasant piece of literature; it voiced the sorrow and anger of a people who wanted revenge. These would not have been people very open to getting advice from an upstart, small-town prophet, especially if that advice was to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters….” And even more disturbing would have been his admonition to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf!” Not advice the original exiles would have been likely to want to hear.
But here’s the deal — Jeremiah wasn’t writing to the original exiles. Jeremiah was writing to their children — not children born in captivity, but rather those who had been taken to Babylonia as children or as youths. He is writing to the group sociologists call “the 1.5 generation,” those who emigrated as adolescents or slightly older children; they are the ones who would be getting married and building houses. In our society today, we might call them “the DREAMers.” Studies have shown that such individuals will identify with both their country of origin and the country in which they grow up. They are often bilingual and easily assimilate into the culture of their new country while continuing many of the cultural traditions of the old; in a very real sense they are bi-cultural. It is to this group that Jeremiah writes.
And what Jeremiah writes is something fundamentally new to the Jewish religion. It’s also a complete change of gears for Jeremiah. Initially, he had been something of a firebrand, uttering God’s judgments against the people of Jerusalem, their priests and their leaders, for all their wickedness in forsaking God. (Jer. 1:16) Now he radically changes his message; where he had preached punishment, he offers words of hope; where he had preached destruction, he offers a way forward. In the process of doing so, he introduces a completely new understanding of God’s presence with God’s people always and everywhere.
In the ancient Near East, there was generally a belief that there were many gods. Even the Jews believed this; they were not yet what we would call “monotheists.” Striclty speaking, they were “monolatrous,” i.e. they worshipped one God, but acknowledged that there were others. The people of that world believed that different gods had different physical domains. When one was in the Holy Land, in Israel or Judah, Yahweh was supreme. When you traveled to another land, you entered to another god’s or group of gods’ domain. Most nations had a central temple in which the local deity or deities were believed to live. The Jerusalem played this role for the worshippers of Yahweh; exiled in Babylon, they found the temples of other gods. This was not a land where you worshipped Yahweh; remember Psalm 137’s plea of grief: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” But along comes Jeremiah and tells them to do exactly that! “Pray to the LORD on behalf [of the city where you now live], for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
How do we carry old convictions and confessions into new, uncertain, and sometimes unsettling settings? Jeremiah says to adapt, to assimilate, to build houses, take spouses, have children, but be bi-cultural; do not adopt the religious ways of the culture in which you live. Yahweh is not limited to the lands of Israel and Judah. Jeremiah encourages his readers to accept their role as immigrants in a foreign land while remaining true to the ethical and religious teachings of their heritage. He might have used St. Paul’s words from the Second Letter to Timothy: “The word of God is not chained.” Adapt, that’s what he is saying: “You don’t have the Temple anymore. You can’t offer the sacrifices anymore. You can’t do the Temple liturgy. But you still have the day-by-day rules of living set out in the Law of Moses. You still have the ethical teachings of the prophets. Stick to the ethical teachings while letting go of the Temple rituals; apply the Law and the Prophets in your new circumstances. Adapt!” In a very real sense, we could argue that in Jeremiah’s letter to the 1.5 generation of the Babylonian Exile we see the laying of the foundation of the rabbinic Judaism of Jesus’ time, the rabbinic Judaism that would survive the last destruction of the Temple 600 years later, the rabbinic Judaism with which we are familiar today.
Although Jeremiah might have used St. Paul’s words, “The word of God is not chained,” St. Paul’s message in writing those words was a very different one! Instead of counseling Timothy and his congregation to adapt, Paul is saying, “Don’t change anything!” Warn the congregation, he admonishes Timothy, “that they are to avoid wrangling over words.” They are to hold onto the established conventions; they are to preserve the received tradition; they are to avoid changing any practices or adopting new ideas. St. Paul’s advice is the complete reversal of Jeremiah’s!
And yet, he writes paints this wonderful picture for us, “The word of God is not chained.” He gives us this vision of Truth that is not bound to a historical moment, that is not written once and chiseled in stone or engraved on golden tablets, that is living and ever new. There is a great hymn on this theme that I might have selected for today (if I’d thought about it several weeks ago when I did the music schedule for the end of the year). Written by George Rawson in 1835 and in our hymnal at No. 629, the first two stanzas are these:
We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial and confined.
Now let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.
Who dares to bind by his dull sense
The oracles of heaven,
For all the nations, tongues and climes
And all the ages given!
The universe how much unknown!
That ocean unexplored!
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.
When Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon and essentially told them that God’s Presence was not limited to Israel or Judah, when he introduced an understanding of God’s protective love as with them always and everywhere, he opened up to them and to us the possibility that God’s love and care not only extends to other lands … but to other people, as well. Jeremiah specifically called upon them to seek the welfare of the city where you have been sent, to pray to the Lord on behalf of the very people who had taken them captive for in their captors’ welfare they would find their own. God’s love is there for everyone in every place at all times, even those people we might not prefer.
And so it is that our gospel this Sunday features the ultimate outsider, a Samaritan leper, as hero. No one could be more hated than a Samaritan in Israel, yet in Luke’s story Jesus doesn’t bother to ask where any of the lepers are from and only when he returns to give thanks is it made clear to us that the only one who demonstrates gratitude is a Samaritan. God’s love is there for everyone in every place at all times, even those people we might not prefer.
How do we carry old convictions and confessions into new, uncertain, and sometimes unsettling settings? We adapt, because “the word of God is not chained.” It is not limited to one country; it is not limited to one people; it is not limited to one religion; it is not limited in time or space; it is not limited by our crude, partial, and confined notions and ideas. The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word! Thanks be to God!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.