A Sermon for Sunday, September 8, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Jeremiah 29:1-11
The ancient Israelites have gotten themselves into quite a mess.
For more than 40 years, the prophet Jeremiah warned that God was furious with them for showing a lack of concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourners in the Kingdom of Judah. The Israelites had been told repeatedly for centuries that “concern for the marginalized was the determining reality for any nation that would claim to be great.” 
Because they continually failed to listen and obey God’s command, Jeremiah informed them that exile and destruction were in their future. And he was right.
The Babylonian Empire, run by the ruthless King Nebuchadnezzar conquers the Kingdom of Judah, destroying the temple in the capital city of Jerusalem and burns down the city.
Soon thereafter, Nebuchadnezzar orders several deportations of the Jewish people to Babylon, including Jeremiah.
Once they are in Babylon, the people begin to wonder how long they will have to stay with these horrible, pagan Babylonians. Some false prophets among them fill their heads with dreams and notions that God will soon rescue them and return them home, and therefore, they should resist Babylonian rule with all of their might.
But then Jeremiah sends a powerful and radical letter to the people that says otherwise. Within the letter, Jeremiah counsels the exiled to not listen to the prophets who are spouting lies and saying only what the people want to hear; he encourages them to listen instead to what God says.
And that message is not one the people expected to hear or ever dreamed of doing:
“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.
For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill my promise to you and bring you back to this place.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Instead of saying, “pack your bags, time to go home,” God tells them to make themselves comfortable and settle in for a couple of generations. Furthermore, God instructs them to care for their new city because the Babylonians are God’s people too. Biblical scholar and pastor, John Holbert explains:
Rather than hold their noses in horror at the pagans who would taint them, YHWH says they must pray for them, because all are in the world of YHWH together. This is nothing less than a call for the exiled to open their lives and hearts to the people among whom they now have been forced to live. Rather than close their lives to the Babylonians, Jeremiah asks them to open up their lives and to learn and grow in the new reality of Babylon.Jeremiah concludes this portion of his brief note by warning the exiles not to listen to other so-called prophets and diviners who speak a different word, words presumably that would urge them to keep to themselves, to insist on their own rightness and righteousness, to attack any who would dare to act and believe differently than they do.
Clearly, the dreams the Israelites had for quickly returning home and wiping their hands clean of the Babylonians have unraveled along with their identity. And yet, there is a vision of possibility in the harsh reality of exile. There is hope. Even though God ensures there are consequences for the Israelite’s wayward behavior, God also assures the people that their welfare and safety is a priority and as such, God will not abandon them
And while they are in exile, which is always disorienting and challenging, God through Jeremiah reminds the people that compared to Egyptian slavery, this circumstance is not that bad. The Babylonians are giving them freedom to own property, build homes, have families and produce food. Thus, God advises them to make the best of the situation and promises that they will get out of the city what they put into the city. If they open their lives and hearts, they will receive the lives and hearts of the Babylonians. If they “build” and “grow” by showing kindness and hospitality to their neighbors and devote themselves to being concerned for the city’s welfare, the Israelites and Babylonians will have created authentic community with God’s love at the center.
But what does the Babylonian exile of the Israelites mean for us today in the 21stcentury? Church worker and theologian, Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon offers this observation:
The text calls for a movement away from the privateness of the church and into the world, into the public space to address issues affecting people, especially those on the margins, those that suffer from political, social and cultural insecurity and discrimination. Margins are the space of God’s visitation, for God is discernible and present in the margins. We are called to journey from the centers of power to the fringes of society to experience God in new ways and in new forms, because God is present in the disturbing and unsettling questions raised by experiences at the margins. Our theology needs therefore to be transformed into a public theology if it seeks legitimation from and by the wider society.
(The text also) calls for commitment to seeking shalom (life in all its fullness) and well-being for our cities and our neighborhoods. … Staying together to work for and praying to God for the well-being of our cities and countries are our imperatives. Our well-being and the well-being of our churches are bound up with that of our cities and our immediate locales.
Considering Melanchthon’s insights, the question for Emory Presbyterian, located on 1886 North Decatur Road in Atlanta, then becomes: how is the welfare of our city (and state)?
The short answer: not so well for a place that is home to several Fortune 500 companies like Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola and the center of a booming film industry that has had a $9.5 billion impact on the state.
According to recent data, there are 3,572 homeless people living in the city of Atlanta, both sheltered and unsheltered. And there are 460 living in Dekalb. Atlanta’s poverty rate is at 24 percent meaning that nearly 1 in 4 people live in poverty. Atlanta also has the worst income inequality than any city in the U.S. About 18 percent of Atlanta households earn annual income of $150,000 or more compared to 9 percent who make less than 10,000 per year. To even be in the top 1 percent of Georgia earners, you’d have to make $345,876 annually. And the “housing wage” needed to pay for a modest two-bedroom unit is $21.27 an hour (Georgia’s minimum wage is $5.15 an hour).
Throughout metro Atlanta and in north Georgia, 1 in 7.5 or 755,400 people turn to food pantries and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families each year. More than 164,000 are children and more than 64,000 are seniors. The Atlanta Community Food bank reports that it serves more than 80,000 people each week. Additionally, 13.4 percent of Georgians or more than 1 million people are uninsured. 
I realize that’s a lot of troubling statistics to absorb. You’re also probably wondering how we could care more for the city when we’re already stretched thin as a small church and doing what we can to serve others.
Perhaps there are some dreams that need to unravel and die in our life as a congregation and our individual lives so that communities within the city can prosper. (After all, our well-being is wrapped up in their well-being.)
And maybe (if we let some of those dreams unravel), then we could do just a bit more to seek the welfare of the city and open our lives and hearts to other Atlantans.
For instance, could we help dismantle the system of poverty by advocating for better healthcare and affordable housing for the lowing income and working poor while continuing to serve a meal at Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, make donations to Decatur Emergency Assistance Ministry and do home-builds for the MLK Weekend of Service?
Could we make regular trips to have worship and conversations with the homeless at Mercy Community Church on Ponce de Leon?
Could we spend time with the Friends of Refugees organization in Clarkston by assisting teen refugees with the planting and maintaining of gardens?
Could we have dinner in the city with our Muslim neighbors who typically come into our space every spring to make meal bags for CHOA?
Could we organize the medical professionals from the congregation and community to provide a free clinic once a month to the uninsured?
Could we visit neighborhoods in Atlanta and talk with local leaders about how their communities have been uprooted, disempowered and marginalized?
Could we have a big BBQ with our brothers and sisters from Trinity Presbyterian Decatur; Hillside Presbyterian Church, Druid Hills Presbyterian, and Shalom International—on any one of our front lawns?
I know these questions are overwhelming to consider. And I suppose that’s because they require us to leave what is safe, reliable and familiar in this place. They even demand that we might need to let other dreams unravel—big wishes like having more people pack this sanctuary, become members and make financial pledges so we can have unlimited resources like other churches and a deep bench of volunteers to serve.
It’s not bad to dream of more people joining Emory Presbyterian. What we do in these church buildings and on this property is important and sacred. We want more folks to be a part of the ministry here. And we need people to dedicate their time and money so that staff gets paid, the A/C and lights stay on, and to do all the work that needs to be done to nurture faith.
However, we must also never forget that our well-being is inextricably bound with the well-being of our city. And if we don’t physically journey more often from our comfort zone in this place to be in authentic relationships with people out there around us and on the margins of Atlanta, then there will be no shalom or fullness of life here or anywhere.
Lauren Wright Pittman share this wisdom in a statement about her Jeremiah 29 painting “New Roots” which serves as today’s bulletin art:
I moved to a new state. As I write, I’m living out of boxes, the trunk of my car, and a storage unit. It’s a jarring experience to move, even when it’s a conscious choice. I’ve found myself in a place that resembles almost nothing like what I’d envisioned for my life. I left a city burgeoning with opportunities and culture; now I’m in a small town where I’d be thrilled to find one decent, local coffee shop. I’m beginning to realize visions about the future I wasn’t even aware of. These unrealized dreams took root in my being in a way that feels defining to who I am.
Something happens deep in our core when we feel out of place. The day I moved my immune system failed and I became sick and disoriented. The Israelites were forced into exile, ripped from their homes, places of worship, and way of life. They find themselves in Babylon where they dream of the day they’d return to where they belong. Jeremiah’s words are comforting, yet painful. They are told to stay, plant gardens, and allow their families to flourish in this strange land.
I’m sure this was disappointing, but when you hold onto the past, you miss the richness of the present. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” … Maybe when our lives unravel in transition, the loose ends of our dreams, the friends we leave behind, and the paths untraveled can become the roots that stabilize us in the new place where we find ourselves. These threads can create grounding that nourishes and transforms us into something new. This new place can be a gift—a place of flourishing and a conduit for deep, authentic connection with self and community.
While seeking the welfare of the city and opening our lives and hearts to strengthen community can be scary and intimidating, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to see how God is present in the steps we take toward a future with hope.
Pray for the Shalom of the City: Reflections on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 by John Holbert, October 13, 2013
Homelessness & Poverty Statistics: