Serve the city where God has placed you; for in its welfare, lies your own. — Jeremiah 29:7
Jeremiah was about thirty years old, when the armies of Babylon swept across Syria and Palestine. They left the capital city of Jerusalem standing, but at a price: a good portion of its population was deported – carried off to exile in Babylon. Jeremiah was one of those who remained in his native land.
The Israelite captives were hostages of the state. They were not exactly prisoners, but neither were they free. Living in the midst of strangers, they were exiles, not immigrants; their families, their homes, their hearts were elsewhere.
The mourned, for the old country. They dreamed of returning. They sang songs of lament. (You know the words: by the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept, when we remembered Zion…)
But then — rumors began to spread, and hope began to grow. There was political unrest in Babylon; the King was losing power. They’d be out of here any day now! They would return home – and their real lives could resume.
It was at this moment that Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles, in which he told them: Make yourself at home, because you’re not coming back.
Build houses; plant gardens; have children. Seek the welfare of the city in which you live. For in its welfare, lies your own.
Well, it turned out Jeremiah was right; King Nebuchadnezzar survived the attempted coup, and reigned another 32 years. It would be another 25 after that, before Babylon fell, and the Israelites were allowed to return home.
By then, two generations had been born on Babylonian soil. Did some of them decide to stay? Did they have a choice? When they finally got back to Jerusalem – did it feel like home?
Last August, I brought my kids to see my old neighborhood for the first time. I grew up in Greenwich Village, New York, in an 1840’s carriage house, which had been really barely renovated into faculty housing for NYU. The house was pretty much one enormous, two-story room, with a roof of leaky cross-beamed rafters; the bedrooms were tucked up in what had been the hayloft. The first and second stories were connected by this crazy, open metal staircase that had been put in by a couple of set designers who had lived there a decade earlier. This was the family home for over thirty years, until my Dad retired from NYU and moved out.
That was almost twenty years ago, but sure enough, as I turned the corner onto my block this summer, there was the familiar cobble stone street, looking almost exactly the same as it did during my childhood. There was my house, with its dark brick walls, its heavy wooden door, and the wisteria vine still climbing up the front.
As I stood there with my family, the door suddenly opened, and a couple of workmen came out, who had been doing some repairs inside. They let us peek in through the door.
Gone was the hanging staircase, replaced by a more conventional (and doubtless, safer) enclosed staircase. Gone was the open balcony, replaced by glassed-in second story. Gone was the raftered ceiling.
I told the kids, don’t look inside. That’s not the house I grew up in.
The inescapable truth is that my children are growing up in a different world than the one I think of as home. I don’t know about you, but my experience of aging is sometimes not so much a feeling that I am getting older, but a feeling that the world around me is somehow getting younger. It’s like that old trick with the tablecloth and the plates. I stay in one place, but somehow the ground beneath my feet changes.
Even those of us who stay put may find ourselves longing for the old country, for the way things used to be. It is not only the refugees who find themselves in a strange new world. Many of us live with a persistent sense of dislocation. The world around us changes so quickly.
How do we make ourselves at home, in this brave new world?
Serve the city where God has placed you; for in its welfare, lies your own.
After all, the exiles in Babylon weren’t the only ones who found themselves surrounded by strangers. What did their Babylonian neighbors feel about this influx of foreigners, I wonder? Did they say to these refugees, make yourself at home? Or did they, too, long for the day when the Israelites would finally leave, and their city could return to normal?
It is one thing to live alongside outsiders, but another to let them in – in to our homes, into our families, into our hearts. To seek their welfare, as our own.
In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, I hear an echo of a later letter, this one written by the apostle Paul to the newly converted Christians in Ephesus. Some of the other leaders of the early church had balked at the inclusion of Gentiles into what had previously been a monocultural, all-Jewish group of disciples. But in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul proclaimed Christ has torn down the barrier that divided us into two separate peoples. “You are no longer strangers and aliens,” he wrote, “but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
In other words: Make yourself at home.
Today, 26 centuries after Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles, there is again a mass deportation going on in the middle east. Armed conflict in Syria has driven over four million Syrians to seek refuge across the border in Turkey and beyond. Half of these refugees are children.
A friend recently shared with me another letter, this one written just last month. It was posted on facebook by a grassroots group in Iceland, called Syria is Calling. Earlier this year, the Icelandic government announced that it would accept just 50 Syrian refugees. In response, the group posted this letter, demanding that the government increase the quota:
Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People [to whom we will] never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.” Open the gates.
In other words: Make yourself at home.
So far, the group has generated individual pledges of housing and support for 10,000 refugees.
Jeremiah’s letter is not just for the exiles, but also for those who receive them; not just for the migrants, but also for those of who stay put; not just for his ancient audience, but also for us, right here, right now. Are we willing to echo Jeremiah’s words, and say to the newcomer: make yourself at home? And – just as important – are we willing to make ourselves at home, in this new city, with these new neighbors that God has given us?
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have children, and let your children have children. But seek the welfare of the city God has given you to live in, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare, you will find your own.
(10.18.2015, Belchertown United Church of Christ)