seek the peace … of the city’

Professor Sarah Mortimer, Tutor in Modern History, Christ Church
Trinity 17

10.30am

Choral Eucharist

Jeremiah 29.1,4-7;  Luke 17.11-19

When exiles in Bablylon received Jeremiah’s letter, they must have been nervous.   Jeremiah was one of the feistiest, most outspoken prophets of the Old Testament; always urging the people of Israel to stay true to their faith and to look after each other if they wanted to survive.  But all his warnings had been in vain, it seemed, and now the worst had finally happened.   They had been forced into exile a long way from home, taken against their will to a strange land to serve a distant ruler.  They were cut off from their temple, from the promised land, from all that had held them together as a people.  Their very identity as the people of God seemed to be in crisis, hanging by a thread.   All Jeremiah’s predictions had come true – and, languishing in an alien, gentile Empire, their situation could hardly be much worse.

                But as the exiles heard the letter, they realised that Jeremiah is not writing to condemn them, and he does not pour reproach upon the people.  His words are words of comfort and hope.  And he does not tell them to cut themselves off from their new city or to denounce it for its failings; he calls upon the people to marry, and settle, and to pray for their new city, to work for its peace and prosperity.  The land may be strange and unwelcoming, the exiles may be far from home, but they are not cut off from their God.  And nor is Babylon.  It may be a place of idolatry, cruelty, ignorance and fear, but Jeremiah insists the people must still pray for it, that they are part of that city now.  They must put aside their hatred and despair, and see the Babylonians as their fellow citizens, caught up together in the drama of life.

                That was a hard message for the exiles to hear.  How could they pray for a city that had wrenched them from their home, from their temple and from all they held dear?  How could their God hear them when they were so far from his holy places?  But Jeremiah’s letter is challenging their idea of God, suggesting to them that God’s vision and concern is wider than they had imagined, his care extending across those boundaries that divide humans from each other.  God is there even in the land of Babylon, just as he is in their own land of Israel.  And as Jeremiah continues to prophecy, he will tell of a new covenant about to begin, when God will draw all peoples to him and write his laws on their hearts.  To this homesick, defeated people he will tell of a new age where God gathers his children in from all places, and satisfies their hunger with his abundant riches, a time when all will ‘rejoice in the bounty of the Lord’.

                Now it’s easy to skip over this little letter, with its mundane advice, to get to that stirring vision of the new covenant and the restoration of God’s people.  But that would be too easy.  Jeremiah knows that the people need to learn to pray for the city of Babylon if they are to understand anything of what that new covenant means.  They need to set aside their tribalism, their anger, their rage and despair; they need to see in their enemies the children of God.  They must learn that the loyalty God demands of them is not to a particular place or land but to his covenant of love and mercy – and that is a covenant for all people, wherever they come from and whoever they are.

                We see something of what that new covenant means in our gospel story, when Jesus heals Jewish and Samaritan lepers together.  These people were outsiders, excluded from all society by the highly contagious disease that took their health and their freedom; and the Samaritan was doubly excluded by the ancient quarrel that set his people apart from the Jews.   As we heard, they are healed by Jesus and then reconciled, and Jesus extends his power and mercy towards them without questioning their identity or their background.   That in itself is remarkable, but what interests Luke is the Samaritan, and the way he responds in what is surely a two-way process.   The Samaritan is willing to ask for healing at the hands of a Jew, despite their divided history, and to accept the mercy and grace offered to him by someone outside his own people.    But in reaching out across that divide, the Samaritan does not lose his own identity.  He remains a Samaritan, for that is what he is, yet now he knows himself to be accepted as one of God’s children, equal alongside the Jews and alongside the gentiles.   God’s covenant and reconciliation does not obliterate our earthly identities or our earthly communities but it transforms them, sets them within the light of a love that is universal and generous to its core.

                These stories point to one of the deepest themes and challenges to Christian people – how to understand the gospel of universal love in communities which are distinctive, tied to particular places, histories and cultures.  It can be tempting to cut ourselves off in the hope of staying out of the messiness of this world, or perhaps instead to try to impose our faith on the cities of this world.  But that is not the advice of Jeremiah, who called on his people to pray for their cities, to engage with them and serve them, while staying true in their hearts to the new covenant of love.  It’s advice echoed a thousand years later by that great theologian St Augustine, in his epic account of the City of God.   Writing to Christians scattered across the pagan Roman Empire, Augustine assured them that the Heavenly City summoned citizens of all nations and every tongue, as a society of pilgrims each with different customs, laws and institutions.  What mattered and what held them together on their journey was their shared worship of God, and united in this way they could embrace the customs and cultures of their lands, so long as these contributed to peace.

                Today’s world can feel just as fractured and divided as those ancient Empires.  We’re all too well aware of how anxiously people cling to what they, what we, feel makes us special, sets us apart, and gives us an illusion of power and control.   A language of conflict and competition can easily arise, as groups strive for domination and victory at the expense of each other, seeing themselves as locked in battles to defend themselves and their identities.   We all know how dangerous this can be, as relationships break down and human beings slide into discord and violence, unable even to see each other as fellow human beings.   But we need not despair or lose hope – for God offers to us a new covenant, revealed in the scriptures and renewed through the sacraments.  It’s a covenant that embraces all peoples and all places, to which all are invited equally and in which all human diversity can be drawn into a harmonious unity.  If our hearts are true to that covenant, our deepest loyalties and our deepest identity will be rooted in God’s eternal and abundant love – and we too can be generous, can pray for all our lands and cities and can work together, for our common good and for the Kingdom of God.