September 11th, 2022 homily on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 by Pastor Galen
The 1960’s American sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” followed the comedic adventures of seven castaways who were shipwrecked on a deserted island following what was originally supposed to be a only 3-hour tour. The castaways included the ship’s skipper and his first mate, Gilligan, a millionaire and his wife, a movie star, a professor, and a young woman named Mary Anne. The passengers had set forth from a tropic port aboard a tiny ship when rough weather caused their ship to be tossed to and fro, and eventually run aground on an uncharted desert isle.
While neither the passengers nor the crew had ever imagined that they would find themselves living on a deserted island, as the longer version of the theme song told us, “they’re here for a long, long time, they’ll have to make the best of things. It’s an uphill climb.” Indeed, throughout the 3 seasons of the show, the castaways continued to look for ways to escape the island and return home. But as it gradually began to sink in that they would be there for a while, they began to settle in and make the best of things. After Gilligan and the skipper’s attempt to leave the island using a makeshift raft failed in the first episode, by the second episode the castaways were making huts to protect themselves from the impending storms – and they began to make themselves at home on the island.
Unlike the passengers and crew of the S.S. Minnow in Gilligan’s Island, the Jewish people living in Babylon in Jeremiah’s day had not yet come to the realization that they would be there for a long long time, and that they too would have to make the best of things. No doubt when they were forcibly removed from their homeland of Judea, they thought it would only be a few weeks, or months, or maybe a couple years until they would be allowed to return home. Indeed they wanted nothing more than to return home. Back to their friends and neighbors and loved ones. Back to their fields and farms and city. Back to the temple in Jerusalem where they loved to go and worship. Back to everything they had ever known and held dear.
Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles in Babylon
And yet, the prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles living in Babylon telling that indeed it would be a long long time, and in essence that they would have to make the best of things.
Jeremiah wrote, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
Now instructions were shocking to the people in Babylon. The instructions indicated that they would not just be there for a few weeks or months or years, but for generations! Build houses and plant gardens? Get married and have children? Give your children away in marriage? These are activities that stretch out over the course of many years! And indeed we find out a few verses later that it would be at least 70 years until the first of the exiles began to return home (Jeremiah 29:10). And so indeed the Jewish people living in Babylon would have to make the best of things. And like the castaways living on Gilligan’s Island, it would be an uphill climb.
Settle In – it’s Going to Be a While
But there’s another reason why Jeremiah’s instructions to the Jewish people living in Babylon would have come as a shock. Jeremiah told the people to “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” (Jeremiah 29:7). Or in Hebrew, seek the shalom of the city…because in it’s shalom, you too will find shalom.
The word “shalom” or “peace” here refers not just to the absence of violence, but also wholeness, rightness. It’s the state of everything being as it should be, nothing broken or lacking or missing. And Jeremiah says that if you seek that type of peace, if you work for the good of the whole community, then you too will experience shalom. Peace. Wholeness. And so Jeremiah says to seek the peace of the city. For if it prospers, you too will prosper.
The instructions that they would work for the good of the Babylonian society – the very people who had forcibly removed them from their homeland and compelled them to march hundreds of miles to a place they had never even seen before – would have sounded absurd. They wanted nothing more than to work for the destruction of Babylon so that they could be free to go back home.
And yet Jeremiah makes the case that the fate of their people was inextricably linked to that of the people of Babylon, and that working for their own good involved working for the flourishing of the whole society in which they lived – and that included even their enemies, and the people they didn’t get along with. Just like the people castaway on Gilligan’s island – despite their very different temperaments and personalities and their various roles and stations in life back home, there in Babylon – as on Gilligan’s Island, they would have to learn to live and work together if they wanted to survive.
Seeking the Shalom of the City
Some of us have perhaps found ourselves in a place we never would have imagined. Working a job we never expected, attending a school we never expected. In a living situation we never expected to find ourselves in. Perhaps you had dreams or goals that just didn’t pan out. Or perhaps the circumstances of life just took you in a different direction than you ever would have expected. And the question is, do you just try to endure and get through it? Or do you settle down and try to make the best of things?
Of course, there are times when we find ourselves in a situation that is toxic for us, and we must do anything within our power to escape. There are times we must quit, or walk away, or resign, or even flee if necessary.
But there are other times when we are given the assurance that God has us right where we are for a reason. And in those situations we find ourselves with a choice – do we just simply seek to cope or endure? Or do we work for the good and flourishing of the company we work for, the school we attend, or the community we live in?
Earlier this week I saw a post on Facebook that said something to the effect of, “No matter how much playing time you get on the field – play your heart out. Your coach will notice.” And then it said, “Even if you spend the whole game on the bench, cheer your heart out. Your coach will notice that too.”
That image epitomizes to me the idea of Jeremiah’s message to the exiles in Babylon. Even if you don’t get any playing time on the field, rather than spending your time on the bench sulking because you’re not out there playing, cheer on those who are – because if the team prospers, you too will prosper.
Pray for your Enemies
In addition to Jeremiah’s instructions to the people to plant gardens and build houses and seek the peace and prosperity of the city of Babylon, Jeremiah instructs the people to “pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV). The instructions to pray for the flourishing of the city of Babylon rather than praying for its destruction, would have been just as shocking as his previous instructions. But Jeremiah tells the people to pray for the flourishing of the city in which they were held captive for the same reason he told them to seek the flourishing of the city – because if it experiences peace and shalom and wholeness, then they too would experience wholeness.
Often when we face issues or challenges or conflicts at work or school or in our household or community, our prayers are “God, help me!” or “God, get me out of this situation!” And sometimes those prayers are completely appropriate. But Jeremiah’s instructions fit well with Jesus’s instructions to his disciples many years later, to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Jesus urges us to pray for the wellbeing of our enemies that is similar to that of Jeremiah’s: “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). In other words, if you pray that God sends hail to destroy your neighbors crops, watch out, because your crops might get destroyed as well! But if you ask God for just the right amount of sunshine and rain to give your enemy a bountiful harvest, then you will also experience an abundant harvest. (And, as a side benefit, your neighbor will be so busy harvesting his bumper crop of food that he won’t have time to bother you anymore!)
Pray for the Peace of our City
And so, as counteritive as it may seem, both Jesus and Jeremiah instruct us to pray and work for the flourishing and well-being of our enemies – or the city or school or job we find ourselves in – whether we want to be there or not. And that includes praying for our classmates, our bosses, our neighbors, and coworkers – including those who are constantly pestering us, or trying to get ahead of us in line, or who constantly criticize us. Not praying for their destruction, but for their wellbeing.
Jeremiah’s exhortation to pray for the flourishing of the city, and Jesus’s command to us to pray for our enemies challenges the way we pray. Often when we pray for the needs of our community, we ask for God to bring peace amidst the violence of our city.
But Jeremiah and Jesus would encourage us not to just pray for our own safety and protection, but that those who are inclined to commit violence would instead have their efforts redirected towards promoting peace and wholeness. To pray that corrupt government officials would not just be found and caught, but that their lives would be transformed, that they could use their powers and influence for good. And that the classmate who steals our cookies at lunch would be so blessed with an abundance of cookies that he would be transformed from someone who steals, into someone who can’t help but share his abundance of cookies with others.
And so let us pray and work and seek the wellbeing of the school we attend, the company we work for, the neighborhood and city where we live. Let us pray and work for the flourishing of all, that we too may flourish. Let us pray and work for flourishing and wholeness, that we too may experience God peace and shalom.