October 13, 2013 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, Proper 23 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“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.”
In 601 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, attempted to invade Egypt. It did not go so well and the Babylonian armies were repulsed. Some of the various client states in the Levant, Judah included, got a bit optimistic, and choose the Egyptian side of the conflict. While Babylon could not take Egypt, a third rate kingdom like Judah was no contest, and after a siege, Jerusalem fell.
The Babylonians were shrewd in their imperial conquests. To maintain control of their clients (the ones who proved to be unreliable as self-governed vassals) what they would do is to take the elites of the society, the royalty and aristocracy, the religious, military and civic leaders, wealthy land owners and at least in the case of Israel, a thousand smiths, the engineering/technical class. They took these elites, almost literally the 1%, back to Babylon where they lived in relative freedom, just not where they were from, not in their home. And back in Jerusalem, the Babylonians installed a king and ruling class. This proved a very effective way to manage an empire. This is what the Babylonian Captivity was all about.
Obviously being conquered by a foreign power and being hauled away in forcible exile would be terrible for any people. (Although, we have very little feedback from the un-elite, the underclasses left behind in Judah. Maybe they appreciated the 1% being hauled off. We don’t know because the scribes, the academics, the literacracy were in Babylon). In any case, the pain of exile was particularly hard for Israel. Why do you think? ___ The Temple. Right. That is where God was in a very particular way. Or maybe not where God was, but where Israel had special access to God, the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple of Solomon where the Arc of the Covenant lay interred, where sacrifices, fragrant and otherwise were offered to God. So when Nebuchadnezzar and his army cut up and carried off the golden vessels and braziers described in such detail in the Pentateuch, when the priests and Levites were removed from their familiar temple, in effect, Israel was ritually cut off from access to God. Like in year 70, when the Romans razed the Temple in their desolating sacrilege, Israel was scattered in the Diaspora and rabbinic, not Temple Judaism was birthed. The birth-pains began in Babylon. In the captivity.
And O! how Israel wailed. Feeling cut off from God, in a foreign land. Also stripped of the leadership, power and wealth they once possessed as the elite of their own nation; let’s not forget that hermeneutic. Justifiably by any standard, though, they were devastated. And they wept, they wept in songs that reverberate across the ages. You all know Jimmy Cliff, “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion… and our tormenters asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1, 3b-4) Separated from the Temple, Israel became, so the story goes, separated from God.
Israel lamented and wept. And the politicos, the snake oil salesmen, the proclaimers of what everyone wanted to hear, they arose. In legion. What do we call them? The false prophets. False prophets tell us what we want to hear, or what they thinks that we want to hear, and not necessarily the truth. Why? Well, there is lots of power in being listened to. Hannaniah, from the 28th Chapter of Jeremiah (the chapter preceding our lection, and whose false prophecy Jeremiah is correcting) Hannaniah was one of these false prophets. “I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.” He proclaimed. “Within two years I will bring back to this place the vessels of the Lord’s house.”
That’s what everyone wanted to hear. “Within two years we’ll be back home. Nothing needs to change, we just need to suffer through.” Nothing needs to change. We can’t pray here, we can’t really even live here, but we’ll be home, soon. Batten down the hatches, defend in place, dig in and wait it out. Modern day equivalents might be “Don’t worry, we can spend our way out of the recession, or cut our way out by cutting taxes on the wealthy.” Or, “we can end climate change (or close the government or sequester its resources) without any inconvenience, at least no inconvenience for us tax paying voters. (If you are looking for your WIC Check, you’ll have to wait until we sort this stuff out).” False prophecy. False prophecy being most discernable by the high ratio of positive outcomes to the amount of investment or sacrifice required. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
So then, what is the antidote to false prophecy? The True Prophet: enter Jeremiah. Israel is in tatters: separated from the Temple, separated from God and the false prophets proclaim, “Don’t worry! There is no need to change ANYTHING! We’re here right now, but we’re only passing through…” Well, if that were the case, fine, you might not have to change, not have to actually be where you are. But Jeremiah saw it differently. He saw that everyone wanted to go home, of course, but that that was not in the offing. He described the exile as the will of God! “Thus says the Lord of hosts, to all the exiles whom I have sent…” “Whom I have sent.” If it is God’s will that Israel be in Babylon, does it make sense for everyone to just sit and cry a river of homesick tears?
No. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Get married, have children, and see to it that your children have children. “…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 own welfare.” Set down roots and make a home a true home. Don’t forget Zion, but don’t cry Mr. Cliff’s river of tears, either. As Buckaroo Bonsai said from the 8th Dimension, “Where ever you go, there you are.” (Thic Nhat Han says, “I have arrived.” It’s the same same, but different).
We speak about the sacrament of the present moment on occasion here. This is the doctrine that right now is the only time that actually exists. The past is, well, past, utterly unrecoverable and unre-liveable and the future, assuming it comes, is always a day or a moment away. Memory and Hopes are lovely, and too often devolve into Nostalgia and Fantasy. What we have really got is right now and only in the right now may we eternally and actually encounter God. The sacrament of the present moment.
What I am beginning to explore theologically is the notion of the sacrament of our present place. We are only ever where we actually are. We can remember where we’ve been; we can dream or maybe anticipate where we are going, but right now we are right here. Church of the Resurrection. 3925 Hilyard St., Eugene, OR. Five miles due south of where the McKenzie joins the Willamette, Four miles due west of the peak of Mt. Pisgah. 44 degrees .8 minutes N, 123 degrees 4 minutes W, Earth, Solar System, an unremarkable (in the scheme of things) arm of the Milky Way and so on. We are right here. Right now. And this is the only time and the only place we can ever actually be; right here, right now. That, perhaps, is what Jeremiah was saying to Israel. Don’t lament the past, don’t lament where you are from; embrace the present. Embrace where you are for “in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Is there a more timely lesson for us as a species? For us as citizens of a planet in crisis? The modern day true prophet Wendell Berry writes powerfully that the liberal axiom “Think Globally, Act Locally” is an abomination, and is exactly the thinking that got us into this pickle, this ecological, economic, imperial pickle, to begin with. We need to think as locally as we act. Truly, we need to be local, sacramentally locally. To be in this very place at this very time, fully. If everyone was actually doing that, actually given the opportunity, the freedom, the freedom from oppression and the poverty of conquest and empire to actually be in the place that they find them selves in, what a wonderful world it would be. But failing that, what we need to do is get our own houses in order. Clean up our own air, our own water, our own soils, our own economies and industries , or own cultures and agricultures. Abundance always (or at least usually) arises when an ecosystem is in harmony. And from the abundance of our thriving locally, maybe from that surplus we can help further afield, but now, pay attention to where you are, what you are doing, for this very moment and this very place is the only place you actually are and is the only time that actually exists. And it is only in this very moment, and only in this very place that you, or anyone ever in the history of humanity has ever encountered God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. In this very moment. In this very place. Pay attention. Listen to Jeremiah. God is with us, Emmanuel, whenever it is, wherever we are. That is how it always has been, and that is how it always will be. AMEN.