The Hebrew Scripture reading which the lectionary offers this coming Sunday is largely a letter—from Jeremiah, to some fellow-Jews, but written in the name of Jeremiah’s God. It is this letter which invites us to consider some important aspects of how we live our faith.
Jeremiah wrote this letter twenty-five centuries ago, a long, long time ago. Does this letter still hold relevance to us, today? Jeremiah wrote in the ancient Hebrew language, running from right to left across the page. It is most likely that the letter was written on a scrap cut from a roll of papyrus, or possibly leather; but there was no neat sheet of paper with carefully-inscribed words, or neatly-typed paragraphs, carefully folded into an envelope, such as we would expect of a letter today.
And not only does it look different, this letter was written to a very specific group of people, who were quite different from us. It was addressed to people in a very different situation from most of us; a group of people who had grown up in Israel, but were now refugees, sent into exile, forcibly removed from their homeland, mourning all that they had lost, and now trying to come to grip with their new life in the faraway land of Babylon.
Do you remember Psalm 137? By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept? This would have been the way that many of these people responded when they arrived in Babylon. And the fact that this Psalm is still in our Bible tells us that the people sang this song, for a long time; it was not just a top-40 wonder for a few weeks or months, but it was sung over and over, and became one of the sacred songs of the people for generations—through into our own time, in fact!
So this letter seems a somewhat unusual choice for the focus of our attention today, as the way in which the word of the Lord might possibly address us, in our settled, comfortable lives. What could it possibly have to offer us, as we reflect on our faith in the world of the 21st century?
And yet, the words have a distinctively contemporary, relevant feel about them. They speak of ordinary life, of family and home, of a life which is comfortable, settled, and peaceable. They speak of building relationships, undertaking good, honest work, and living with responsibility for those under our care. Hear again the heart of the letter: 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. 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.
Perhaps the heart of Jeremiah’s letter is in this simple phrase: seek the welfare of the city. This was the word of the Lord which addressed the disturbed and dispossessed Israelites who had tearfully followed their deposed Israelite King Jeconiah and his court into exile under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, wondering what awaited them there in this strange land. Could it be that this is also the word of the Lord which addresses comfortable, settled Australians, enjoying the fruits of hard work over many years, living in a time of ongoing material prosperity?
Some knowledge of the original language of the letter might be relevant as we ponder this matter. In the last verse of the letter, Jeremiah three times uses the one Hebrew word that probably most of us have heard and would recognize: the word shalom. Each time the NRSV translates this word in this letter, it uses the English term welfare. We know this word, perhaps more familiarly, through the slightly different translation, peace.
And perhaps we are also aware that the ancient sense of shalom encompasses not just peace (the absence of conflict), but also wholeness, fulfillment, security, satisfaction, a co-operative spirit, a sense that all is well with the world. This is what the fearful exiles were being encouraged to work towards.
What would it have meant for those homesick Israelites, long ago, to have been prepared to seek the welfare [the shalom—the peace—the wholeness] of the city?
I think that it might have meant things like this: Get ready for a long period of time away from “home”; there will be no quick fixes, no easy answers, no instant gratification. You are here, in this strange land, for the long haul. Settle down, make your peace with the locals. Be prepared to make this the new “home” for yourselves and your descendants.
I wonder how would we feel if that were the situation we were facing? It could mean: Be prepared to work co-operatively and constructively with the very people who have inflicted pain and suffering on you and your people. They dragged you away from home and set you to work in this strange place. They are the ones who forced you into this bad situation. They are “the enemy”. But God is telling you to work with them. To co-operate with your enemies. To love your enemies, perhaps? To co-operate with those who hold different points of view from yourself—in precisely the way that various groups in our society are learning that they must do.
The word of the Lord presents a serious challenge, then, to the exiles in Babylon.
Even more than this; Jeremiah delivers God’s message to the people in very specific ways: Be prepared to marry and raise families with people from outside of your group … be prepared to marry these strange, alien, unfamiliar people. You won’t be able to keep on marrying your own people, those who have come with you from Israel; the gene pool is too small for that to work for too long. So get yourselves ready, to marry a foreigner. You are the ones who are going to create a multi-ethnic community, a multi-cultural society.
And perhaps, then, the challenge to the people of Israel, in exile, was for them to lift their eyes above their immediate grief and pain, and do what was good, what made for peace, for the whole city. Through Jeremiah, God was telling them: Set your goals, not on the basis of what is good for me as an individual, but rather on what is best for the whole community. Seek the shalom of the city; the whole collection of human beings who are gathered in this one sprawling metropolis.
What was this city, in which they found themselves? It has been estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world in the 17th century BCE, and again between 612 and 320 BCE— and of course it is during this latter period that Jeremiah was writing. Babylon was probably the first city to reach a population above 200,000—a figure which seems relatively small to us when we think about cities, but which would have required complex administration and organization to ensure that, just as a start, all 200,000 inhabitants were fed each day. So seek the shalom of the city means that the Israelites were being challenged to immerse themselves in the largest population, the most vibrant and diverse community of people, at that time, in the ancient Near East.
And this is the point at which I believe this ancient Hebrew letter comes alive and speaks to us with a message of relevance for our own times and our own place. Seek the shalom of the city in which you live, work, relax, shop, and worship. How might we seek the welfare of our own cities?
City life, today, is marked by its diversity, its complexity, its ambiguities and uncertainties. This is particularly so as the nature of particular suburbs and areas change over time. Once quiet dormitory suburbs for people working in the city, in nearby business centres, can change, as different groups of people move in. As times change, the old certainties of suburban life no longer hold; the predictable patterns of comfortable middle-class lifestyle are challenged. We cannot ignore these changes; we cannot hide our faith from engagement in what is taking place around us.
Perhaps a different ethos emerges in the quiet dormitory suburb, as the area transforms into a regional transport hub, is filled with medium-density housing, caters to a greater concentration of students and aged people. All of these features can be gleaned from census material; all of these factors, and more, need to be part of the deliberations for a local Congregation as they consider those vital questions: who are we? what is our ministry? what might our ministry be? what sort of leadership is required for us to develop accordingly? These are questions that all Congregations should ask on a regular basis.
In the city, says Jeremiah, the people of God are to seek the welfare, the wholeness, the shalom, of the whole population. It is a charge that we ought to hear as a clear and direct word to each of us, and to the Congregation where we are active, as we seek to contribute to the welfare of the city. What do we have to offer, as the people of God in this time, in this place?
The Uniting Church is committed to being a church that takes seriously the context in which we are located. Our Basis of Union set out to ensure that we were formed as a church that was relevant to our Australian location—not simply a colonial copy of an English or Scottish church, but an authentically Australian church. I was privileged to be trained in theology in the early years of this church, when living out our faith in the Australian context was of paramount importance.
In past years, I have been part of Congregations that have sought to engage in active ways with people in their local communities: through a weekly School for Seniors programme; by offering a weekly meal at no cost to people in the local community who are poor, or lonely; by volunteering with the telephone ministry Lifeline; by engaging with local artists in a programme called Arts in Action; by fostering constructive relationships with Indigenous students and their families; by supporting partnerships with people in the third world and developing robust micro-businesses; by undertaking training in the Sydney Alliance and engaging with local community groups on specific, focussed projects; by being active in a local environmental advocacy group, Climate Change Australia. These are but some examples of the many ways that our church has long been committed to seeking the welfare of the city.
So we, today, face the challenge of responding to the changing circumstances of our time, when fewer people claim an active belief and participation rates in church activities are much less than in the “glory days” of decades past. We might well be seeking to create new ways of being communities of faith; looking for new opportunities to make connections with people in our immediate locality; exploring the means for ensuring that our city is one which is marked by fairness and justice; and shaping a church which is committed to finding new and creative ways of expressing our faith in our own locality.
The Uniting Church is a participatory church. At every level, there are opportunities for people to play all sorts of roles, in contributing to the work of the church. We are not dominated by one group, a clergy-led church, or a male-led church, as some other denominations might appear to be. We affirm the equal role of people, regardless of their gender—males and females can exercise leadership and offer ministry; regardless of their race; regardless of their age. We believe that the Spirit is at work amongst people who are striving for justice, seeking fairness, working to create equity in the lives of other people.
As a Uniting Church, we are an inclusive church that values the contribution that each and every individual can make. We are also a church that values the commitment of groups of people—that is why we meet together, act together, and share with other groups who also act together, in organisations such as Sydney Alliance or Climate Change Australia or other local enterprises. As we work alongside others, we offer a way of understanding life which is guided by moral principles, shaped by ethical commitments, and always informed by standards based on our faith commitment. That is something of a distinctive quality which we bring.
Whilst our faith does not solve every problem or resolve every dilemma, it does equip us to think carefully and to act with integrity as we engage with others. In these ways, we can surely attend to the challenge that Jeremiah provides, and seek the welfare of the city (or town, or village) where we are.
The Sydney Alliance is an organization which has been created in recent years, as one attempt to seek the welfare of the city of Sydney, to strive to make this city a better place to live for those who have lived here a long time, and for those who are recent arrivals to the city. It has a commitment to seek justice and fairness across the city. The Uniting Church is one of the foundation members of the Sydney Alliance, along with a number of community groups, trade unions, and other religious groups drawn from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.
The website of this organization describes it in this way:
“The Sydney Alliance is a citizens’ coalition whose vision is to provide our community with a voice to express common values and aspirations for a fair and just Sydney. The Alliance is broadly based across religious organisations, community organisations and unions establishing relationships that respect diversity, while building a cohesive society. The Alliance is a non-party political organisation. Its primary purpose is the ability to act for the common good to achieve social change in our communities.”
The way that the Sydney Alliance operates is through building bridges, engaging in dialogue between organisations, and seeking to find opportunities for its members to participate in reshaping the society of which we are a part. Why should the Uniting Church join itself with other organisations in our society in this way? Why should we commit time and energy to involvement in this kind of coalition, with a wide range of people who live alongside us in the city? Some of these are people who seem familiar to us—Catholics, nurses, teachers, members of the Cancer Council, bus drivers, public servants.
Some are people of nodding familiarity, perhaps, although we don’t know many of them very well—Jews, Asian women, hotel employees, members of the climate action network. Some are perhaps strongly alien to our regular lives—people from the Indian community organization Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Australia, from the United Muslim Womens Association (complete with traditional Islamic female attire), from the Federation of African Communities Council. These are the people with whom our church is joining in this new, emerging Alliance.