Narrative Lectionary Year 1
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11
Today we go from the prophet Isaiah, who prophesied in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, to the prophet Jeremiah, who also prophesied in Jerusalem but in the 6th century BCE. The northern kingdom of Israel is now gone, destroyed by the Assyrian Empire and its people scattered. The southern kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem still remains, having survived Assyria’s attempts to conquer it. But now, the new empire of Babylon has arisen and is threatening Judah and Jerusalem. Judah’s status was that of a vassal state at first, retaining some of its independence but being required to pay tribute to Babylon. But in the year 597 BCE, Judah revolted, causing Babylon to invade, carry off the nobles and the well-to-do families of Jerusalem to Babylon, and install a puppet king named Zedekiah. But Zedekiah in his turn revolted against Babylon, and in 587 BCE, Babylon again invaded, conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and either killed or deported the remaining people to Babylon. God called Jeremiah to prophesy in Jerusalem during these turbulent times.
And we see what God calls Jeremiah to do in the first part of our reading today: “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” This is not an easy calling, and Jeremiah did not have an easy life. Like Isaiah, he had access to the kings of Judah, but unlike Isaiah, the kings and their courtiers did not always want to hear what Jeremiah had to say. In fact, at one point in Jeremiah’s story, those who were in power got so annoyed with him that they threw him down a dry well and left him there to die. And what was the message that Jeremiah was preaching that the people did not want to hear? Well, in contrast to Isaiah, who counseled King Hezekiah to trust in the Lord and the Lord would save them from the Assyrians, Jeremiah was prophesying that Babylon was indeed going to invade and conquer Jerusalem because the people had not been following the covenant that the Lord had made with them.
And this is what we see in the second part of our reading today. I want you to picture this: you’re coming in to our church building for worship on a Sunday, as you usually do. But this Sunday is different. On your way in, you are confronted by a street preacher who loudly cries out that all of our worship of God is meaningless because we are not practicing what we preach. For instance, we might say that we welcome all people, but if we look around, we see only people who are white sitting in our pews. Or, even while we may give food and clothes to the hungry and the poor, we are not working for God’s justice, which would mean people would not be hungry and poor in the first place. So, what would you do if you were confronted by a street preacher like that on your way in to worship? Would you talk to the person? Would you try to get him to quiet down so you could worship God in peace? Would you send me as your pastor out to talk to the person—hopefully with the president of the congregation! —and see if we could ask him to leave?
Basically, that’s what Jeremiah is doing in the scene that we have before us today. He is standing in the gate of the Temple and telling the people who are coming there to worship that they should not trust that God will protect them and the temple just because it is the temple of the Lord. He says that all of that is meaningless unless the people are willing to amend their ways when they leave the Temple. They need to not only say that they are children of God’s covenant, but they also need to live out that covenant in their daily lives. And that means that their responsibilities are to “act justly with one another . . . do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow . . .”, to “not shed innocent blood in this place,” and to “not go after other gods to your own hurt.” Only when the people repent and start living out this covenant will God truly dwell with them in the temple.
We’ve been talking for the last couple of Sundays about prophets, and what prophets do. We talked about what Micah means when he proclaims God’s call for us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In that context, I talked about a couple of justice issues facing us today: the evictions crisis in this country and the minimum wage. Last week, we heard from Isaiah about beating our swords into plowshares and learning war no more, and I talked about how we can be peacemakers in our own lives. Today, we hear about the need not just to worship God with our lips, but to also live out that call to justice by acting justly with one another and not oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow. So, how would Jeremiah say that we are to live that out in our American context today?
I’m going to approach this question by first telling a story. Once, there was a young couple who decided to come to the United States to try their fortune here. They were here for several years before they decided that they just couldn’t handle the U.S., and they decided to return to their country of origin. But while they had been living in the United States, they had a baby girl. When they returned to their homeland, as they raised their child, they told her that she had been born in the United States and therefore was a citizen, and that she should hang on to that citizenship in case she ever decided to return. When the girl turned 20 years old, she applied for and received an American passport, and she said farewell to her parents and returned to the United States, where she stayed with relatives and eventually got married and had a family of her own. That girl was my great-grandmother, an immigrant from an area of central Europe called Prussia, which is now part of Poland.
All of us sitting in this room, unless you have 100% Native American blood, are children of immigrants. Maybe you know some of the stories of your ancestors. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you think you know their stories, but if you were to investigate further, you would find some surprises. Maybe our ancestors came here legally. Maybe they came here illegally. Maybe some of our ancestors were even brought here as slaves or indentured servants. Maybe they came by a very roundabout route: one of my great-great-grandfathers came to the United States from Germany via Australia and New Zealand! My point is, even if our families have been here in the United States since before the beginning of this country, all of us have stories of immigration in our histories. And these stories form the foundation of our families.
Jeremiah tells us that one of our duties as Christians is to defend the alien. I know that immigration is a hot button issue in our society. There are many parts of our immigration system that are broken and need to be fixed, and we can discuss what the best ways to fix the system are, and we can disagree on how best to fix it. But in the meantime, we as Christians are called to treat those who are immigrants in our country as human beings. There are many verses in the Old Testament that say the Israelites are to treat foreigners in their midst compassionately, because they should remember what it was like for them to be foreigners in Egypt and how they had been used and mistreated as slaves. An updated version of that command to us would be: treat immigrants kindly, because remember that your ancestors were also once immigrants, strangers in a strange land. Treating immigrants humanely means not separating families. It means giving special consideration to how long immigrants have been in their communities here in the U.S. and thinking about what kind of effect deporting them might have on their communities when they have been making positive contributions. And it means also giving consideration to what it would mean for parents to be deported when their children are here in the United States legally, and it means helping those children who have their parents ripped away from them.
The vast majority of immigrants who come to our country today are continuing to act out the stories of our own ancestors: fleeing from violence in their home countries, which my ancestors and probably some of yours were doing when they came from Europe; they are looking for a better life here in the United States. Jeremiah and many of the other prophets tell us that we are to defend the alien in our land, and that if we don’t, we are not living as God’s children. But, Jeremiah tells us, if we repent and we truly amend our ways, then God will be gracious and forgive us.
Today we are observing Christ the King Sunday. If we indeed claim Jesus Christ as our king, then the way that we behave as a society should reflect that. We think of Jesus as meek and mild. Jesus loves everybody no matter what, and this is true. But as we heard in our short reading from Matthew today, Jesus could get angry, too, when the people were not truly behaving as God’s children ought to behave. We, too, should get angry when immigrants are not treated as human beings. So, let us repent and let us amend our ways. Let us discuss why our immigration system is broken and urge our legislators to fix it. But more than that, let us work to defend the basic humanity of those immigrants who are coming into our country, remembering that once, our ancestors here were also immigrants. When we do, then we will make a beginning at living as if Christ truly is our king. Amen.