Doing the Best Things in the Worst Time

by Michael Usey; Jeremiah 29. 1-7 (The Message)

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-GA) resurfaced Facebook post caused the term “Jewish Space Laser” to trend on Twitter Thursday. Greene is well known for holding extremist, racist, and antidemocratic political views and for promoting a litany of insane conspiracy theories, including QAnon. But on Thursday, an old Facebook post revealed what may be her most inane  and most racist conspiracy theory of all: that lasers controlled by Jews caused the deadly 2018 California wildfires.

The recently-sworn in congresswoman really said that. Greene wrote that there were “too many coincidences to ignore” regarding the fires, and opined that they weren’t a natural phenomenon at all. Instead, and she theorized that: 1) the Rothschilds, a wealthy Jewish family frequently mentioned by Nazis and other racist groups who advance horrific anti-Semitic conspiracy theories; 2) Teamed up with PG&E and the government of California; 3) To deliberately cause the fires using; 4) A laser from space; 5) In order to clear out land for a high speed rail line.

Many people had extremely funny things to say about this madness.  I myself wrote Rabbi Josh to see if I could borrow his Jewish Space Laser to clean out the area behind my shed.  But here’s the serious point: this is yet another canary in a coal mine. This is exactly the kind of craziness the Nazi said of Jews in 1930s before the camps opened. Let me suggest this: that every one of us call up one of our Jewish friends today and tell them we denounce this hatred, and that we see them. This should not go unchallenged or unsaid.

If there is community, then one has to face the neighbor. One has to get to know the neighbor. One has to love the neighbor. That is what makes our text for this morning so apt and so interesting. From the prophet Jeremiah, his advice to the exiles in Babylon, written to them, by the way, not us. The Babylonians took the Jews from the Southern Kingdom in 587 BCE.  The exiled Jews lived as second class citizens in Babylon for 70 years.  This letter to the exiles from Jeremiah dates from the beginning of this Babylonian exile.

Many years later, Jewish theologians point to this text as a resource that the Jews have used to guide them in what is called the “Diaspora,” the dispersion of the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, into all the nations of the world. They turned to scripture to discover some instruction, some meaning for their lives. They turned to Jeremiah.

Which is what we can do. Particularly if you feel exiled from the world that you grew up in, then Jeremiah may be speaking to you. Or if you find yourself in a situation in this life that you don’t want to be in, but there is nothing you can do about it, then Jeremiah may be speaking to you. This is what Jeremiah has to say to us:

  • Build houses and live in them;
  • Plant gardens and eat their produce.
  • Take spouses and have 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.

The Jewish people have done that to a remarkable extent all around the world, even though they have been banned from countries wherever they have gone. They have established themselves as part of the community and contributed service and benevolence and social compassion in measures that are unequalled by any other group. And they have done it, at least in part, because they listened to Jeremiah. And they “built houses; and they planted gardens,” and they “sought the welfare of the city in which they found themselves, and they prayed to the Lord on its behalf.”

This is serious stewardship. This is biblical stewardship. Biblical stewardship is not giving a portion of my resources to charity. Biblical stewardship is based on the commandment of God, found in the creation, to have dominion. That means to go to work, and to make your place a better place. Dominion used in the NT parables of Jesus is what the king gives the servant when the king goes away. He gives the servant power and authority to do something in this world. Then he returns, and asks, “What have you done with your stewardship? I expected you to use what was given to you to make this a better place.”

The revelation in the Jeremiah passage is that stewardship is expected of you wherever you are. You can’t say, “Well, we are just temporarily here.” You can’t say, “I am just a snowbird. I am just here for the winter. Our roots are someplace else.” You can’t say that. Nor can you say, “I am new here. I’ll just let those native tarheels take the responsibility for the city.” You can’t say that. Nor can you say, “I feel like a stranger here. These people here, surrounding me now, are not my people. So I don’t feel any responsibility now.” You can’t say that. Nor can you say, “I am too old,” or “I am too poor,” or “I am too anything else.” This comes to us with divine authority. “Build houses; plant vineyards; seek the welfare of the city in which you find yourself, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”

There are other biblical mandates that have to do with dominion, with responsibility. They all have to do with the same thing. They all say, “dig in,” get to work. Whatever you hand finds to do, do it with all your might, the writer of Proverbs said. In fact, what our Bible is really interested in is, “What are you going to do with your life?” You will have to search hard to find commands in the Bible on what to believe. But you cannot avoid commands in the Bible on what you are supposed to do. Because according to Biblical faith, we are here to dig in, to be a part of a community, and to invest in that community, to build homes; to plant gardens; to seek the welfare of the city.

Lawrence Haworth published a book entitled The Good City, in which he said there are two parts to the good city. The first is opportunity. The second is community. You can’t have a good city with only one of those. He said what is wrong with American cities is that they have been used only for opportunity, and they have neglected community.  This is what we’re talking about on Wed nights, studying and considering the common good.

People have always come to the city for opportunity. From the beginning, they come to make money. They feel that if they could live someplace else they would, but they have to be here because this is where they can find work. Cities are economic engines and they attract people for that reason. That is all right. They attract rich and poor alike, people of all nationalities, all races, all come together in the city for economic reasons. For many Americans that is all that the city is good for. They don’t feel any obligation to contribute to the welfare of the city. They take out of the city, but they don’t put anything back into the city.

Ann and I don’t watch network television; commercials turn our brains to putty.  So we’re just now catching up to the sitcom Community, which began in 2009.  It’s a good way to end our evenings, and it’s much better than average–the seven who are students at Greendale community college are all unusual and form an unlikely community.  In each episode, we’re presented with a set of friends who are there for each other no matter what their flaws. Unlike some of the more heartwarming comedies of the era like Parks and Rec and The Office, some characters from Community were far less redeemable, which makes their kinder moments towards each other all the sweeter.

Compare the show Community to that of Seinfeld, the defining sitcom of the 90s. The not so subtle message of Seinfeld was that the good life is going to be found only if you seek your own pleasure and don’t think of anybody else. In fact, do you remember the last episode of Seinfeld? It parodied that message, as if it were a signature on the whole series, saying this is who we are. We are people who believe that the only good a city is for is opportunity, opportunity to find your own pleasure and your own wealth. Not only was community not mentioned or illustrated in that series, it was studiously avoided. Any sort of commitment or obligation to anything, or anyone, beyond the self was impossible. It could not happen. The city exists for opportunity for Seinfeld. 

But cities will become uninhabitable if they don’t also create community, concern for one’s neighbor, sacrifice of a portion of one’s well-being for the common well-being, contributing to the welfare of all.

What is amazing about this passage in Jeremiah is the advice is given to exiles 2700 years ago. He presents to them the formula for the good city: “Build houses; plant gardens.” You could say that is the opportunity side, the economic side of the city. But the next phrase: “Seek the welfare of the city, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” That is the community side. That is the stewardship side. Stewardship is seeking the welfare of the place in which you live. Stewardship is giving back something of which you have received.

Friendship exists when somebody pays attention to you. Community exists when a city pays attention to all of its citizens, and treats them as if they were a treasure. Jeremiah’s counsel to us is, “Build houses; plant gardens; seek the welfare of the city, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”

On February 1, 1960, four young African-American men entered the Woolworth’s less than a mile from our church buildings. They sat down at the segregated lunch counter and refused to leave after being denied service. Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr. (later Jibreel Khazan), and Franklin McCain, all students at NCA&T, were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his doctrine of using non-violent protests as a way to achieve social and political progress.

After purchasing a few small items at Woolworth’s, the young men proceeded to the lunch counter with receipt in hand. Instead of heading to the standing snack bar where they were normally relegated, they sat at the lunch counter designated “whites only.” After taking a seat, the young men politely waited for service. Someone called the police, but segregation at the lunch counter was a social custom and not a law. The men were paying customers and couldn’t be arrested. They’re actions took real courage.  They changed our city, our state, our nation, and arguably our world.  They were students not from here but they sought the welfare of their city.  Tomorrow we remember and honor them again.

In the 17th century there was a church built in the little village of Staffordshire, in England. There is a plaque in that church that reads like this: In the year 1653, When throughout the nation, all things sacred were either demolished or profaned Sir Robert Shirley Baronet, founded this church whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in the worst times.

We are to dig in. We are to seek the welfare of the city. We are to do the best thing always, even in the worst times.