Where do we find redemption?
As Christians we find healing, forgiveness, and redemption in Jesus Christ.
But in the Hebrew scriptures, redemption and restoration was found in the temple. People would bring their offerings, first fruits, and sacrifices to temple to heal their relationship with God.
Around 600 years before Jesus, the temple was destroyed. The people of Judah were conquered by the Babylonians. They were pulled out of their communities, their homes ravished, the walls of Jerusalem torn down, and the temple destroyed. The temple was more than just ‘a church’ it was thee church: the place with the Holy of Holies, the arc of the covenant, the temple was the presence of God and now all of it is gone.
It was all gone, all lost, all destroyed, and the people taken from their homeland and forced to live in a country not their own.
It is to these people that the prophet Jeremiah writes this letter.
When we think of the prophets of the Old Testament we normally think of them addressing kings and the powers of the world, calling them to do God’s will and to return to righteousness.
But this letter is not written to the kings of Babylon, but to the people in exile. In particular, Jeremiah writes to the religious leaders, the elders, priests, and prophets, saying here is how you live as a people in exile.
You would expect that a people being forced to live in a land not their own would not be happy about it. In Psalm 137 it says we sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept. Their captors asked them to perform the songs of Zion and they asked how can we sing our songs in a foreign land?
But Jeremiah writes and calls on them to live differently.
Jeremiah’s first word to them is to continue to live your lives.
Yes, what has happened to the children of Abraham is horrible. They lost everything and their lives are difficult and not their own. But, live well anyway. Live well in the face of the injustice that has been done to you. Your land might have been conquered, but you have not.
Some of you may remember from a sermon I gave a few years ago that my real heart music is punk rock. It was not in punk rock that I first heard the call toward for social justice, it was in a music that came from the streets.
My favorite album of 2018 is by a new punk band called Idles. Song after song on the album lifts up social justice issues from immigration to racism. But the album is called “Joy as an act of resistance”. The point the album makes is that while there are all kinds of injustices in the world, the invitation is to live as people of joy in the face of it. Not in a Pollyanna naivete, but in the face of the injustice in our lives, live joyful as an act of resistance. Stand tall in the face of anyone who tries to keep you down.
This is Jeremiah’s word to the people in exile. On its own it is a radical, counter-cultural message that challenges us to live differently: not as a defeated people, but as a thriving people. However, the second part of this is even more challenging.
Jeremiah says to “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.”
The people of Israel would have rightly seen the Babylonians as their captors, their oppressors, and their masters. The Babylonians were in every way their enemy, who have been victorious over them. And Jeremiah says to pray for them. Jesus taught that we are to love our neighbor and our enemies, but that can sound like an abstract idea. Maybe we can even dismiss it as a word only for Jesus and the apostles.
Here, Jeremiah gives a real example of how far that reaches.
Jeremiah not only tells the people to pray for them, but that the welfare of the Babylonians is connected to the welfare of Judah. The welfare of the oppressed and the oppressor are interrelated and interconnected. The welfare of anyone effects the welfare of everyone.
In the words and actions of Jeremiah, we see the inspiration for the words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose life and legacy we celebrate today.
Like Jeremiah, King was a prophet. King called on people, from the powerful to the powerless, to live in to God’s righteousness.
One of King’s best known prophetic works is his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.
King had left the relative safety of his home and church in Atlanta to work for justice in Birmingham.
King described Birmingham as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. There were more unsolved bombing of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.”
And yet, King did not have to go to Birmingham. King wasn’t from Alabama, he was from Georgia. He had his own church to tend to, his own family to care for.
Birmingham is about 150 miles from Atlanta. For us, imagine if we heard of an injustice going on in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. We might say what has happened in a different city is horrible, we might even pray for someone else, but we have our own lives and work and responsibilities here.
But not King.
He left his home and his church to work for justice in Birmingham.
To say this was inconvenient for King would be an understatement.
During a protest in Birmingham he was arrested on Good Friday. He spent Easter, not with his congregation in Atlanta, but in prison in Alabama.
And while in prison, eight of the pastors in Birmingham wrote an article published in the paper calling on King to wait.
Instead of standing in solidarity with King, these pastors said: just slow down. Change takes time, you are pushing too hard and too fast. Wait.
Wait was the message King had her from President Kennedy.
Wait was the criticism against him over and over.
The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a response to this and is addressed to “My dear fellow clergymen”.
To his fellow clergymen, King says, in the wake of all the injustice we have experienced, how can we wait? It is easy for you to say wait because you haven’t been through what we have been through. You didn’t go through 340 years of slavery and Jim Crow. You haven’t been denied access at a lunch counter, you haven’t had to sleep in the back of your car because a hotel would not rent you a room, you have not been attacked by police dogs.
How can we wait?
But again, it strikes me that it would’ve been easier for King to wait. After all, Birmingham wasn’t his city. It wasn’t where his church was or where his people lived.
But in his eyes, it was.
King saw himself as deeply connected to the struggle in Birmingham.
In his letter he said:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
King not only saw himself as an oppressed person in Atlanta connected with the oppressed in Birmingham, but he often spoke of working for the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor. In fact, at the end of his jail letter he expresses a hope that the very pastors who have criticized him will be transformed and join him in God’s work for justice.
King operates under a vision of a very large community, where all people are connected in an inescapable network of mutuality. The good or the harm done to anyone, anywhere, effects everyone everywhere.
King would live out this ethic for the rest of his life. In his last years many of his earlier supporters who stood with him when he offered his dream would leave him and join the chorus of those pastors who said “wait” when King began to organize the poor people’s campaign and call for an end to the Vietnam War.
King saw connectedness as much farther than the 150 miles from Atlanta to Birmingham, but that as all people are children of God, we are all called to see our own well-being connected with the well-being of everyone.
This last week, from this stage, we hosted a town hall meeting that was reported on from the front page of the Columbus Dispatch to several television channels. We gave people in our community the opportunity to share how the shutdown of the federal government will impact them if the government is not reopened. People talked about the impact of potentially losing SNAP and WIC benefits, housing vouchers, and delayed tax returns.We, as the Church for All People, do a good job of giving face and voice to what might otherwise be an abstract conversation about numbers on a budget report or in a political debate
One of the voices that stood out to me was Theresa who talked about using her own SNAP benefits to help provide formula for a baby who has food allergies. She talked about how expensive one can of formula is, how the community works together to give this baby life, and how all of that will be undone if the federal government does not reopen.
That is a powerful statement.
But as we read the letters of Jeremiah and King, I want to challenge us to see our work for justice, and our connection with others, as broader than the impact on the South Side of Columbus.
More than any other church I have been a part of, we believe that every person is created in God’s image. In the eyes of every person we see Christ. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, republican or democrat, a punk rocker or a blues musician, all people have divine value and sacred worth. From this understanding we can see our connectedness as much broader than that with our immediate neighbors.
The safety of a Syrian mother who sneaks her children across a border seeking refuge is connected to our safety.
The security of a Native American man in South Dakota who stands for the protection of his land is connected to our security.
The health of our environment is directly connected to our health. The first job given to Adam was to care for creation, but we have forgotten our first calling.
As a Church for All People, we are sacredly connected with all people, everywhere.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
So the invitation and the challenge that King and Jeremiah leave us with is not to simply shrug our shoulders at the evening news, but to see ourselves as living in mutual relationship with all people, everywhere.
Of course, we can’t be everywhere around the globe and we don’t have the resources to work for every cause. But that is the gift of being part of the United Methodist Church. As a global church we are in mission with people in 136 countries. And as a church here, we have changed our noisy offerings this year to not only support our work here in Columbus, but to provide opportunities to be more connected with the global church.
As the Church for All People, let us connect our thoughts, hearts, prayers, and actions anywhere that injustice exists. Like King, let us work for the redemption of people who are oppressed and people who are oppressors everywhere, and in doing so may we find our own redemption.