“Others’ Welfare, Our Welfare”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 9, 2016

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7


A colleague posted something on Facebook recently.  After making it clear which presidential candidate she supports, she addressed her friends who support the other candidate.  “Do me a huge favor,” she wrote, “and fill in these blanks for me:  I plan to vote for this candidate because I also believe (insert belief here) and this candidate’s plan for our nation will directly benefit my day-to-day life by (insert benefit here).”

At first, I appreciated her post.  Where so much political commentary these days seems to assume that those with whom you disagree are either stupid, or ignorant, or deranged, or deceived, or simply horrible human beings, my colleague’s question brought a spirit of curiosity, a desire to understand the perspective of someone who’s on the other side.

But there was something that nagged at me, a feeling that something was missing in the question she posed.  And eventually, I realized that that something has a lot to do with the message of the prophet Jeremiah in today’s scripture reading.

Jeremiah was writing half a millennium before the time of Jesus, at a time when the land of Palestine had been conquered by the Babylonians and many of the Israelites had been carried away into exile in the capital city of that empire, Babylon, near what is now Baghdad.  Jeremiah wrote to those Israelite exiles, the ones who missed their homeland and were desperate to return.  False prophets in their midst were telling the people what they wanted to hear—that their ordeal would soon be over, their fortunes would be restored, their dreams would come true.  But Jeremiah had a different message.

Jeremiah’s letter to the people in exile said this:  “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…  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 said, Right there, right where you are, right in the midst of your captors and enemies—put down roots.  Build houses.  Plant gardens.  Fall in love; get married; have children.  You’re going to be there for a while, so don’t stop living your lives—you can still live, still love, still be faithful, even when life doesn’t go the way you wanted it to, even in the midst of your enemies.

And then he said this.  Did you catch the last sentence of the passage?  “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.”  He said, Seek the welfare of those Babylonian captors.  Pray to the Lord on those enemies’ behalf.  Put yourself to work for the benefit of the city where you find yourselves, because whether you like it or not, your fortunes are tied up with theirs.

This is the message of Jeremiah’s letter:  that we are called to seek not our own welfare but the welfare of others.  And this is what was missing from my colleague’s Facebook post.  She asked, How will your candidate’s plan for the nation benefit your day-to-day life?  But if we are true to our faith, we must ask how a candidate’s plans will benefit not our own lives, but other people’s lives, even our enemies’ lives, everyone’s lives, for our fortunes are tied up with theirs and cannot be untied.

Jeremiah’s letter is a call to a globally-minded perspective, a concern for the welfare of those we would classify as “them” rather than “us.”  It is a call to transcend all the divisions of nation and race, gender and sexuality, ability and class, politics and education, geography and religion.  It is a call to work for the benefit of other people, not only ourselves or the ones with whom we most easily identify.

But what happens when the other people are closer at home?  What happens when we’re not talking about Syrian refugees, or Central American immigrants, or Muslims, or any other group of people that’s turned into a larger-than-life stereotype in our national discourse?  What happens when we’re talking instead about your estranged sibling, or your screwed-up child, or your partner who’s driving you nuts?  What happens when we’re talking about your cousin who’s in prison, or your one-time friend who betrayed you?  What happens when we’re talking about your colleague whose perspective couldn’t be more different than yours, or your parent who couldn’t give you the kind of love you needed?  What happens when other people live in your neighborhood, or in your house?  What happens when they work at the desk next to yours or study in the classroom with your children or grandchildren?  What does it mean to seek the welfare of those other people?

And what happens when the other people are closer still?  What happens when they live within your own heart?  What happens when we’re not talking about a person who is separate from you, but about a facet of your own self?  What happens when we’re talking about the part of you that doesn’t have it all together?  What happens when we’re talking about the part of you that feels like you’re pretending all the time?  What happens when we’re talking about the part that made a mistake and is deathly afraid that someone is going to find out?  What happens when we’re talking about the part of you that is heartbroken and might never heal?  What happens when we’re talking about the part of you that is hurt and might never recover?  What happens when we’re talking about the part of you that is ashamed because you’re not successful enough, or not beautiful enough, or not perfect enough, or not confident enough, or just plain not enough?  Those other people who are the closest to home are sometimes the most difficult to love.

Jeremiah’s call, God’s call, is to seek to love all these other people and to pray for their welfare, for their wellbeing and yours are intertwined.  And here’s the magic of it:  when you practice loving far-away neighbors, you will find yourself more able to love neighbors close at hand.  When you practice having compassion for next-door neighbors you can’t stand, you’ll be better able to love the parts of yourself you judge and condemn.  When you practice treating yourself gently and tenderly, you’ll be better able to love your family.  When you practice loving your family, you’ll be better able to love other people’s families and all the members of God’s family, near and far.

When we practice loving other people at any level, it makes us better at loving other people at all levels.  When we treat other people without love at any level, it makes us less loving at all levels.  For our welfare and theirs are intertwined and cannot be separated.  For in their welfare, you will find your welfare.  Or, in the Hebrew, in their shalom, you will find your shalom.  In their peace, you will find your peace.  In their safety, you will find your safety.  In their wholeness, you will find your wholeness.

Here is the next part of Jeremiah’s letter:

For thus says the Lord:   when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise 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.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.

So in this election season and in all seasons; in the ballot box and the sandbox; in the voting booth and the restaurant booth; in our world and in our nation and in our towns and in our families and in ourselves, let us seek shalom on all levels, for other people, for all people, for in their welfare, we will find our welfare.  And in the process, we just might find God, too.


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