Introduction to the first scripture reading
Our first scripture reading comes from the Psalms. Psalm 137 is a “Song of Lament.” The people of God were in Exile – their country had been conquered, the capital of Jerusalem had been destroyed, and most of the people had been deported to Babylon. You can hear their anger and their pain.
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Introduction to the second reading:
Our second scripture reading comes from the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah had been warning the leaders of Judah about the impending destruction of their country, but they wouldn’t listen. Now the country had been conquered, the city destroyed, and the people sent into exile. Our passage describes a letter Jeremiah sent to the people in Exile – how to understand their situation, and how to live through it. It is an extraordinary word of comfort, challenge, and hope.
Listen again for the Word of God:
The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem. The letter was sent after King Jeconiah, the queen mother, the court officials, the government leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, and the craftsmen and smiths had left Jerusalem. It was delivered to Babylon by Elasah, Shaphan’s son, and Gemariah, Hilkiah’s son—two men dispatched to Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar by King Zedekiah. This is what the letter said:
The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because its welfare will determine your welfare.
The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and fortune-tellers among you mislead you. Don’t pay attention to the dreams they are encouraging you to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, says the Lord.
This is what the Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are completed, I will come and fulfill my promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, you will find me; yes, search for me with all your heart. I will be present for you, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, says the Lord, and I will bring you home again.
* * * * *
One of the most popular verses of scripture comes from the passage we just heard. It’s the verse on which the entire prosperity gospel is based: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The entire prosperity gospel began with this one verse.
What I found while I was working on this sermon, though, is that the word ‘prosper’ is translated differently in different versions. “Plans for peace,” the Common English Bible reads. “Plans for your good,” reads another; “Plans for your welfare,” reads another. So I decided to see what the Hebrew was.
The Hebrew word is “Shalom.”
“For I know the plans I have for you… plans for your Shalom.”
Which is exactly the same word Jeremiah uses earlier in this passage when he tells them, “Work for the Shalom of the city where I have sent you into Exile,” says the Lord. Work for the Shalom of your enemy.
It’s an amazing Word, a stunning word to these people who have lost everything.
The story is a tragic one. God’s people had lived in the land for almost six hundred years, since around 1200 BCE. They became a nation at the time of King Saul, around 1000 BCE. The kingdom split apart in civil war after King Solomon, but the two nations of Israel and Judah were often allies against their common enemies. For hundreds of years they lived this way, until the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians, the people sent into diaspora far and wide.
But the southern kingdom, Judah, stayed together. The capital remained in Jerusalem, which is where the Temple was; it was the heart and soul of the people. Their history was complicated, with various kings being more or less faithful to the covenant, hostilities flaring with neighboring countries, and alliances forming and disintegrating.
Through it all, the people were confident God would protect them. It was the promise of God’s covenant with David. No matter how much the prophets warned them, they never dreamt this could happen. This. Babylon destroying Jerusalem, leveling the Temple to the ground, sending almost everyone into Exile. It was impossible.
You can hear the pain and anger and rage in the Psalm we heard this morning. The sheer disbelief that it had come to this.
“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
The truth is, there was a very real possibility that this was the end of the line for the Jewish people. It was over. There was no home left. All they could hope for was to survive, assimilate as best they could. But their identity was gone. Without their homeland, without the Temple, who were they? Where was God now?
Whenever I hear the story of the Exile, I think of my own family, my ancestors from Armenia, the ones you see on the front of the bulletin. Their story was not so different. They came from the city of Civas, where they were merchants and bankers and landowners. They owned a full city block in the heart of the city, with houses for each of the grown children and their families.
The two older people in the center front are my great-great grandparents, Antaram and Avedas Minassian. In the back row are their children Thaddeus, Rebecca, Haganoush and Vahan. Vahan is the one my father is named after. The younger woman on the right is Margaret, my great-grandmother; Margaret’s son Zaven, my grandmother’s brother, is the boy sitting in the front.
You can’t see it in this picture, but Margaret is holding a photo of her other brother, Hartune, who had already emigrated to America. He became a doctor in Des Moines; later Thaddeus joined him. They came at a time in our history when immigration to America was much easier than it is now; their motivation was simply economic opportunity. Eventually Margaret and her husband and children came as well. I remember my grandmother telling the story of arriving at Ellis Island, and one of the immigration workers pressing seven small coins into her hand to welcome her.
But some of the family stayed. After Avedis passed away, Vahan, the only remaining son, became the administrator of the property; Grandma always said he was a banker. Vahan was arrested in 1915 and taken to prison where he was killed by the Turks. Most of the leaders of the city were killed that way. Antaram – my great-great grandmother - died on the death march – the forced exile of most of the Armenians who weren’t killed outright. One of my grandmother’s cousin’s was taken in what we would now call human trafficking.
I grew up hearing those stories. So when I hear the story of the Exile in scripture, it’s very real to me. It’s visceral. This isn’t just an old Bible story; this was real people’s lives.
And they were terrified.
It is to people like this that Jeremiah writes. And offers a profound word of hope.
It will not be easy, he says. He offers no easy answers. He warns against the false prophets who say that everything will be all right, that they’ll get to go home soon, that it will just be a couple of years and it will be over. He warns them to settle in for the long haul, to accept their reality. It will be decades, not years, he tells them, before you are back in your homeland.
This is the new normal. The world will not return to the way it was. Do not rely on false hope, no matter what other people promise.
But God is with you, he tells them. God is here, too. God has not forgotten. And you are still God’s people. Even here. Even in this foreign land, where nothing is the same. So build houses, and plant gardens, and marry, and have children. Make sure your children get married, too, and that they have lots of children. Settle in. Settle down. Yes, I will bring you home, eventually. But in the meantime, thrive there!
It’s an extraordinary message of blessing.
They key, he tells them, is not where you live, but how you live. Settle in, but don’t settle for the way things are around you. Live, he says, as God’s people. Live for Shalom – for wholeness, for peace, for well-being. Trust that this is what God wants for you.
But not only for you… God wants this for the whole world.
So work and pray for the prosperity of the city in which you live, Jeremiah tells them. Live for the good of the people around you. Even for the ones who are your enemies.
Live for the Shalom of your enemies.
It is an extraordinary message of challenge.
Few of us will ever live in Exile, thank God. Few of us will face what these people faced, or what my own ancestors faced. But there are challenges enough for all of us. Challenges about what it means to be faithful when the world seems to turn upside down. Challenges about believing God is with us, when it seems like God is silent. Challenges in times of loss, or when we are living in a new time, or a new place, and nothing seems familiar. Those times when our very identity is shaken.
Do not lose hope, the Lord tells us. Do not look for easy answers, because they will always disappoint you. But look for my presence. Because even here, even now, in whatever trial you face or trauma you experience, even there, I am with you. And wherever I am, you are home.
The beauty and power of God’s creation are all around us. But we sometimes miss the power of God’s re-creation – God’s love giving birth to new life again and again and again. God’s overwhelming, resurrection power that can make all things new.
“I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord: “plans for good, and not harm, to give you a future filled with hope.”
A plan for your Shalom.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
In one of his poems, Wendell Berry writes:
So, friends, every day do something
that will not compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world…
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laugher is immeasurable.
Be joyful - even though you know the facts….