Sermon by Rev. Sarah Kingsbery preached Sunday October 9, 2022 in Fulton, Missouri
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.
I met Hoan when she was 14 years old.
She and her family are members of First Christian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hoan came to the United States when she was 12 years old. Her family were refugees because of the persecution the Montagnards – the Indigenous people of Vietnam - suffered under the Vietnamese government.
The many different tribes, people who called Vietnam home long before the borders we know now existed, have long experienced unfair surveillance, violence, seizure of their land and resources, arrest, imprisonment, and death.
Many Montagnards – the name given to these Indigenous tribes by the French – allied with the United States during the Vietnamese war. Became Christians. Asserted their right to their native homelands. And in doing so made their home an unsafe place for themselves.
In 2007, because of the danger present, Hoan’s family and many others fled Vietnam and came to the United States as refugees.
When I met her at 14, Hoan and her siblings were still learning a new culture, a new place, a new language.
And helping their parents navigate the same as they tried to make a new home in a strange place because the home they had known and loved could not abide by their presence any longer.
Hoan and the other children and youth who were part of our church community in Charlotte told us stories about playing in the forest, climbing trees, and picking fruit to eat as they played on their family’s ancestral land.
They did not want to leave but they had to in order to survive.
Leaving behind family and friends who could not come with them.
In the days of Jeremiah the prophet, Judah and Jerusalem had fallen to the control of the Babylonian empire.
After a failed rebellion, the King of Judah, other leaders, and notable citizens of Judah were exiled into other areas of Babylonia.
Both those left behind and those who found themselves forced away from Jerusalem
had already been witnesses to war, invasion, transfers of power, rebellion, and political collapse.
The Temple in Jerusalem has been plundered and stripped of its religious purposes.
Later, this symbol of God’s presence with God’s people would be destroyed.
Their community was divided.
Their place of worship, inaccessible.
Their identity shaken.
Their lives threatened.
Where our scripture this morning begins, Jeremiah is writing to those leaders and artisans
who have been exiled from Jerusalem. Speaking into this crisis and fear with these words:
Build houses and settle down; cultivate 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.
Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.
Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare. (CEB)
The stories of exile, of movement, of leaving, of settling, of rescue and of conquest link the narratives throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the texts of our Old Testament.
Some are stories of individuals and families
of Adam and Eve, of Abraham leaving his father’s home,
of Joseph being cast off by his brothers
Some are stories of people
of Moses and the Hebrew people escaping slavery
of the exile from Jerusalem under Babylonian rule
Some are stories of God’s people as victims of oppression and power
slaves finding freedom
the abused finding escape
And some are stories of God’s people conquering the lands of others
claiming it as their own
as a divine right and promise
through violence and force.
...I will admit, I really struggle with those texts.
But Jeremiah is speaking to those who find themselves in exile, the diaspora –
God’s people have been separated from one another and from the holy Temple in Jerusalem
This letter to the exiles comes amidst reminders of the painful places where the community has damaged their relationship with God, and are in need of repentance.
The new places they find themselves are not to be conquered.
And they are not only passing through temporarily,
no matter how much they wish for a swift return to what was.
This text, this reminder to settle where you are, to plant and harvest, to create families and work and pray for what is good where you find yourself, lends itself to a very meaningful metaphorical approach. To hear in Jeremiah’s message as encouragement to, say, settle into a hybrid digital ministry in a pandemic-aware world and seek our flourishing within that new reality of ministry.
But given that tomorrow is Columbus Day, or alternatively Indigenous Peoples’ Day,
I am going to invite us into the hard work of wrestling with this text more literally, more historically.
During my time at First Christian in Charlotte,
I learned the stories of the Jrai, the Bunong, and Ede people of Vietnam
Three groups, with their own languages, own traditions, own identities had all found a community at this little church on the corner.
Despite the differences among them, for all of them, their very presence on the land they had called home for generations threatened the control, the resources, the plans of the powerful. And the time came when they had no choice but to leave the place they called home, a choice that came with its own threat of violence and persecution.
As people who call the United States home, we are called at times to consider that we are *not* the exiles in this story. We bear the legacy of the foreign powers that came to this land and through force, through a false belief in their superiority,
-intellectually, culturally, and religiously-
claimed as theirs the home of another.
It was argued specifically by church leaders -for the benefit of the politically powerful-
that Christians could claim the land, the resources of any non-Christian communities
through the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. And so those that came here used their power and might to threaten, kill, and force into exile those who called this land home.
An exile that was forced on a Trail of Tears.
It is an unpleasant history to remember
and it is easy to dismiss as history long past
but the scars of those choices remain
and are woven, often invisibly
into the tapestry that is our present as Christians
and as citizens of the United States.
To pray and work for the wellbeing of this place we call home,
is to work towards healing of the sins of the past.
In our history, we were Babylonia,
destroying holy places
using Indigenous leaders and artisans
for their skills and connections.
And in truth, this practice continues,
threatening the minute amount of land still held by Indigenous communities
so we might claim more precious resources for our own.
At the same time, in our history and in our present,
we are where exiles have come
looking for safety and hospitality,
victims of violence and oppression in other places.
This is where we stand.
In the middle of a story of exile and welcome.
Destruction and Creation.
Today I invite us to find ourselves as people outside of Jerusalem,
still part of the powerful empire of Babylonia
asked now to welcome exiles, refugees from Jerusalem
in their sorrow and their fear and in their hope.
Those who Jeremiah is writing, warning them this will not be a short exile,
but a time to make a home among strangers.
Instead of continuing a legacy of viewing the other as less than
…as 3/5ths a person
…as a savage
…as a burden
…as a criminal
…as a stranger
What does it look like to join them in the shared work of our collective wellbeing?
To cultivate gardens together
To love and care for one another’s families
To make room for one another
To learn from one another
To view this land, this place as sacred…
as Holy and worthy of care
What does it look like to pray for the wellbeing of the place where we have found ourselves?
for the people we have found ourselves among
and for the people who are no longer in this place
because of the sins of our past
What does it look like to take responsibility for considering where the collective, historical and present “we” have fallen short?
For me, it looks like acknowledging that the land we worship on today historically is the land of the Osage, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, Peoria, and Oceti Sakowin people.
I hope it also looks like establishing anew an ethic of mutuality and creation care in partnership with Indigenous peoples who have been caretakers of this land for generations
and continue to protect our waterways and natural land.
And in partnership with those who come to us as immigrants, refugees, exiles from their own homelands because of abuse of power, climate disasters, violence, and extremism
And come with their own gifts and wisdom to share.
Today Hoan is 27. A wife and a mother.
She is an artist, a teacher at the local community college.
She is leading workshops for other Montagnards to express their past, present, and future through art and sharing it with others.
Their next project is going to be a mural, a group project to represent the village they come from.
While she has gone back to visit Vietnam, she cannot return to stay.
So she is singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
She is painting her people’s story
tying together the past, present, and future
the pain and the hope
the destruction and the creation
the violence and the healing.
Hoan is not alone.
There are those here who are doing similar work,
if we look for them.
When we find those among us
who are working
for the wellbeing of this place we call home
Whether those who were here long before us
or those who have found their way here more recently
I pray we will join their work faithfully.
Seeking together our mutual wellbeing
through repentance and healing
of the violence and oppression
that is an honest and sinful part of our history as a nation.
Because in each of our stories,
I truly believe God enters in
and offers to us an invitation to heal what is broken
restore what has been lost
and seek the wellbeing of all God’s beloved creation. Amen.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  Clements, Ronald E. Jeremiah. Interpretation Commentary
The painting used as the image for this post is a painting by Hoan Rahlan, "Live in Memories."