Rejoice in Christ
A society is judged by how it treats those at the margins. The prophet Jeremiah comes along at an interesting time in the history of Judah, the southern kingdom. King Josiah sits on the throne in power. Judah, which had become a vassal nation to mighty Assyria, now finds itself somewhat free as Assyria falls to Babylon. By right of conquest, Babylon now controls the Assyrian Empire; but many nations are rebelling with their newfound taste of freedom. Judah is one of those nations.
At the same time, King Josiah has sparked a sort of religious renaissance. It’s a mixed blessing of sorts. On the one hand, there has been a kind of revival taking place as people return to the faith. On the other hand, Josiah has managed to cement his power by connecting his authority to God’s authority. True and right worship must now take place in the temple in Jerusalem, which just happens to be the capital of ancient Judah.
And Jeremiah, the reluctant prophet Jeremiah, comes to prophesy on behalf of God in the midst of all of this.
Our lesson today touches on his call, where he resists the idea that someone so insignificant could be God’s mouthpiece. And, as usual, God is having none of that. And it also features one of his fiery temple sermons, where he rails against this newly-minted royal-divine alliance. And the central message of his sermon is this: our nation will be judged by how it treats those at the margins.
Once again, we find ourselves at this amazing crossroads within the Hebrew Bible. On the one hand, the temple is central to Jewish worship and practice. If there was any doubt of that, just look at the headlines coming out of Jerusalem these days. On the other hand, here is Jeremiah railing against the role that the temple has taken, moving aside the crucial teachings of the Ten Commandments and the covenant forged at Mount Sinai. In other words, there is no single coherent voice of faith coming out of the tradition. Instead, it is a healthy conversation, a discernment process that finds itself moved and shaped not by the will of the people or by the decree of words, but by the desires of God.
For Jeremiah, who is God’s messenger, remember, the temple is unimportant. What matters is worship of God – just God, no one else. It is about treating one other with justice. And that includes those who typically had no rights in the ancient world: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner. Apparently, they are doing none of those things, but instead coming to the sacred halls of the temple to praise the God of Judah with sacrifices and burnt offerings. They treat it as a sort of national relic while forgetting the very thing that gives it its sanctity in the first place. Housed within its inner sanctum, in the Holy of Holies, is the Ark of the Covenant, the very vessel that contains the tablets of the law. And those tablets contain the essence of true faith: right relationship with God and right relationship with neighbor.
I have to admit that I can’t help but see the parallels with this text and our national conversations taking place around immigration. I’m not about to launch into a political sermon here – I don’t think that’s the point. At least, it’s not to me. Especially speaking in the echoes of Jeremiah this morning, who detested any kind of nationalized, symbolic faith, for me to turn around and make policy statements just seems wrong. I also think that’s where we, as people of faith, get in trouble. When we confuse policies with statements of faith, we give far too much power to those who craft these policies.
At the same time, Jeremiah’s message is clear: treat all with justice: the widow, the orphan, and, yes, the foreigner. You’ll notice what Jeremiah doesn’t say: he doesn’t say whether or not just treatment includes a path to citizenship. Nor does he say which branch of government has the authority to address the issue of undocumented workers. The point, for people of faith, is this: ignore the vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the foreigner – to your own peril.
A society will be judged by how it treats those at the margins.
There was a story I came across this week that brought this all home to me. Jason Brown was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2005. In 2009, he was signed to the St. Louis Rams to a five year, $37.5 million dollar contract, making him the highest paid center in the NFL. In 2012, he was released by the Rams and entered free agency. That was when he made an intriguing decision. He decided to walk away from football.
At age 29, he and his wife bought a 1000-acre farm in Louisburg, North Carolina. He was not a farmer by trade – he learned how to farm by watching videos on YouTube. At the center of his farming is charity. In two years, he had given away 46,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 10,000 pounds of cucumbers to local food banks.
For Brown, the decision was clear. “It was God’s plan,” he says.
Here was this young man, living what our society considers a dream. He was wealthy, healthy, and famous. Despite all of the knocks the NFL has gotten lately, it is still a juggernaut. It might be pushing it, but I do think there’s an element of national faith at work in our weekend rituals of college and professional football.
So Jason Brown, at the moment that free agency came knocking, answered a different door. And what does he do? He takes care of those on the margins by giving them something to eat.
You see, this is the essence of what we say every time we gather around this table. This table is, itself, a sign of the justice that God desires for the world. This table transcends national boundaries. It defies any restrictions we might want to place on it. It is a holy table, God’s table, where we are fed so that we might feed.
The prophet Jeremiah was distressed by what he saw as the Jerusalem temple became a national landmark. And so, he called the people back to a broader vision of faith, one that rests in God and God alone. That’s what we proclaim today, as we rejoice in the reign of Christ.
God in Christ takes all of this in and makes it whole. God in Christ reminds us that we deserve to be at the margins, but Jesus takes us in anyway and feeds us. God in Christ gives us richer nourishment than we could ever imagine.
During worship last week, I invited those in attendance to fill out pieces of paper with a simple commitment to God for the week. Most of them did, too. And my commitment was to read through them and pray for them. And doing so was a truly moving moment for me. The cards more or less fell into three different categories:
- One was prayer: wanting to establish a regular routine of prayer and devotion.
- A second one was personal acts of kindness: reaching out to a neighbor or friend or family member or colleague who was lonely, hurting, in need.
- And the third was ministries of this congregation: seeing something that you do here as serving God and loving the world.
Friends, that is what Jeremiah’s preaching was all about. That is what Jason Brown’s decision to become a farmer was all about. That is what this table is all about: connecting with God, serving the world and loving those who are on the margins, so that we might demonstrate God’s love for this hungry and thirsty world! May it be so at this and all tables.