These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. […] Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 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.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; lectionary text for Sunday October 13, 2019
I am not the addressee of this letter. Jeremiah is writing to the remaining elders and priests and prophets, all who had been taken captive by the king of Babylon and carried off into exile. They had seen their city besieged, their temple plundered. Jeremiah is writing to people who had been taken to a far-off land. Who sat beside a foreign river and its strange trees and endured the taunts of captors who bid them sing (Psa 137). Jeremiah is writing to people who defiantly had hung their harps on the willows and rejected the possibility of mirth, who resolutely set their hearts upon their loss as if to forget the city they loved would be to lose their hands, their tongues, their very selves.
To these people, Jeremiah writes the word of the LORD: ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you….’ And in myriad pulpits in many cities, this text will be preached as a call to social justice in urban settings. Seek the welfare of the city. Support early literacy and food pantries and more. In the city’s well-being, we will find our own.
The LORD does require of us justice and mercy (Micah 6:8) and the rolling down of righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). But I’m not sure urban renewal is the sum of this particular Jeremiah text. It seems to me less about place and more about time.
Build houses, the LORD says. Live and plant and eat and marry and multiply.
Your old city is lost to you. Your old life is over. Leave it behind. Leave behind, also, the future you had looked forward to. Leave behind the expectation of living and working and growing old in the familiar place, in the shape that had held stable for so long you presumed it would hold longer still. That particular future is as over as the past that had seemed to promise it. Grieve as you need, but don’t get stuck there. There is living yet to come, a future yet unfolding.
Seek the welfare of the city where you are, for in its welfare you will find your own.
Wander the streets of this unexpected city. Look closely at its waterways, its trees, the way its houses are built. Taste its foods. Try its words upon your tongue. Realize that your old life is over, yes, but that you do not, after all, leave your past behind. You bring it with you as you live forward, as you connect the old experiences and expectations with the new possibilities. Grieve and bury that lost future, but refuse to lose yourself in the same grave. Pivot into life.
The prophet did not address his letter to me. But the LORD did. I have not suffered the violent trauma of Jeremiah’s original audience, but I have grieved the loss of a foreseen future and I have found myself living in an unexpected present. Hope — however reasonably and enthusiastically sown — has not flowered as I had anticipated. So leave go not only of those sown seeds but of the expected color and scent of the flower. Till the actual ground on which I stand. Do this work. Plumb these depths. Savor this beauty, this purpose — however furtive or partial, it is here. Give thanks for the grace that does come.
Find my new future unfolding by living deeply in the particular here and now where I am found.
Seek the welfare of the city where I am. In its welfare I will find — or be found by — my own.