Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…

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A Letter to the Durham Exiles

Note: This is a sermon which I wrote for my Old Testament class. One of my favorite aspects of preaching is delivering the Word of God to the people of God, and while I tried to convey and communicate God’s word, it was to no one in particular. Therefore, as with all my posts, I address this sermon primarily to myself with the prayer that by God’s grace perhaps it can speak to others.

Jer. 29:1 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. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.

Let us pray, God of grace and mercy. You have brought us here to this place as students of your Word and servants of your gospel. Lord, though my words are many, let your Word beak through and reveal your good news to us in a real way. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Across the sandy dunes and arid desert a group of Jews are walking slowly. Heads that where once held high in pride of responsibility are now bowed. Robes that were once representative of high office are now torn and tattered, worn by the humbling dust of the defeat. Mouths that once gave prayers to the Lord on behalf of Judah now are silent. And minds that contemplated complex matters of territory negotiations and international diplomacy now find two words repeating over and over again: Exile sucks.

This group of Exiles reaches the great city of Babylon and they find themselves in a new land. A land where Hebrew is gibberish and where Marduk is the Lord. These are the people that Jeremiah is writing to in this 29th chapter. This is a people whose world is turned upside down. They are in a new city, facing new experiences, new people. In this respect they are a lot like us in Divinity School. While we were not defeated by Babylon, perhaps we came to this place after God’s call defeated our plans for our future. Although we might not be in a foreign land, the language of Ambrose, Augustine and Aquinas can certainly sound as confusing. Like us, Jeremiah writes to a people who are out of their element. He writes to a people who are faced with new situations, new ideas and are worried about where God can possibly be in their midst. His letter to them proclaims the Word of the Lord giving them comfort but also commanding them to action. But Jeremiah’s letter is not just to that first wave of exiles. Jeremiah knows that in a few years more will be joining them and that their worst fears will be realized as their Temple is turned to rubble. Jeremiah knows that while things are tough, the worst is yet to come and so he writes to them in the hope that this first group of exiles will take his words to heart and help keep the later exiles centered on the Lord while they are in a strange land.

This is the central message of this letter. The exiled community is struggling. This is a community whose grief is real. Whose pain is palpable. We read their heartbreak throughout the psalms. The God who was once so close is now distant and removed. This is the reality of exile. In the midst of readings and papers and precepts how much do we sit and long for the days when we were in the promised land of our undergrad. Back when things were easy. Back when you didn’t know about close readings or exegesis. We look back and by the rivers of the Eno we sit and weep. How long can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Into our weeping Jeremiah sends a letter. He sends a letter to remind the exiles, to remind us, of where we are. Jeremiah tells us, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…whom I have sent into exile.” Yes, that is right, it is God who has sent us here. Sure this land we are living in is tough. Sure our lives seem hopeless and it seems like we cannot keep our heads above water, but this is the land that God has called us to. This is the land in which God is going to form us and shape us into the people God has called us to be. This is that land, and this is the God of that land.

This is the same God who tells us later in this passage that there are plans for us as a people, there are plans for us as Divinity students. This is a God who tells us that these plans are for our welfare, our peace. These are plans to give us a future with hope. We know about these plans, and yet we all too easily forget them in the midst of everything else. In our struggles today we lose track of the hope for tomorrow. In the land of confusion and fear, Jeremiah reminds us that God has sent us here to be a people of hope.

But, Jeremiah does not stop there. No, instead Jeremiah continues. Jeremiah continues because while God calls us to be a people who live in the confidence of tomorrow, we are also called to be live in the grace of today. Jeremiah tells the people to build houses, plant gardens, make a family. To live a full and abundant life. Sure they are in exile, sure their life is not what it used to be, or even what they want it to be, but God refuses to let them sit and wallow in that. Sure they are to be a people of hope, but that hope is supposed to inform and reform the present, not provide an easy escape into tomorrow. Jeremiah’s language brings the people back to Genesis where God’s first commandment to the newly created humans was to be fruitful and multiply. That is what humanity is made for. To make the most of the abundant blessing that God has given to us. God has brought us here to Duke to be nurtured in the faith and to prepare us to serve God’s Church in the world, but that preparation is not an excuse to just sit and study. Jeremiah’s prophesy is for us to build our homes here for the time we are here. Now, for those of you with families this can be a literal command, but for us single people, don’t get too excited. All of us have places to put down roots. We have churches and neighbors with whom we are involved. We have a city which is brimming with opportunity and need. For us to go for three or four (or five J) years and never leave the gothic walls of Duke would be a travesty. Durham is a community where people pass through. But we has ministers of the gospel cannot just shake the dust from our shoes as we leave. We as ministers of the gospel are called to minister in the city in which we live, to build God’s community, God’s Church wherever we happen to find ourselves.

But more than just moving out of our comfort zones and into the larger world, God calls the exiles to go even deeper. God tells the exiles to go so far as to pray for the welfare of Babylon, to actively seek to create peace, to create shalom, within the city. This is an interesting statement. It is interesting because, just like God reminded the people that they were in exile because of divine action, here God reminds the people that they are in exile under God’s sovereignty. Before the Exile, the Israelites knew that God was in the Temple. They had worshiped the Lord there their entire lives. That was their place of comfort. Then they went into exile. Then they left their temple and their God and moved to another land and seemingly under another God. But Jeremiah calls them back to the God who is available to Israel at both the altar in Jerusalem as well as rivers of Babylon. This is a God who is lord of Israel but also lord of Babylon. This is a God who seeks peace for Israel, but also peace for Babylon and the whole world. This is a God who knows that Israel’s peace cannot come when it looks out only for its own interests but when it seeks to live in peace with its neighbors as well. But we are at Duke. We have Stanley Hauerwas. We know that we are supposed to live at peace with our neighbors we know that we are not supposed to go to war. These things are at the foundation of our Christian understanding of “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you.” We read this text and we know what Israel is missing. But what if Jeremiah is talking about a different group’s welfare that needs our prayers? When we are in our Divinity school cliques talking about our deep understandings of Jesus, we certainly always say how much we hope God blesses our professors who give us lots of reading, our professors whose exams are too hard, our professors who do not give us what we think we deserve. At these moments are we praying for our professors or are we complaining about our professors? When our preceptors give us lower grades than we “deserve” are we praying for them or complaining about them?

What then really characterizes our relationship with this Divinity school? Is it a relationship grounded in prayer, or grounded in complaint? The Israelites were the masters of complaint. Throughout Egypt, all they did was complain. In the promised land they complained to the Lord when they were attacked. And now when their sins have sent them to exile and now threaten to destroy their temple, they are tempted to revert back into their favorite past time—complaint. But Jeremiah cuts them off before they get there. Before Jeremiah receives their letter from exile complaining about how awful it is to be under Babylonian rule, he sends them a letter with a better option. He sends them a letter offering anther way. He sends them a letter saying that, instead of complaining about the difficulties of your situation, pray for your situation. His letter reminds them that their God is also Babylon’s God and that peace will come when their cries of complaint become prayers of peace. What would our experience as Divinity students be like if we took this to heart? What would a poor grade, or a difficult assignment look like if it was bracketed by true and earnest prayers for this Divinity school, for our faculty and preceptors, for our fellow students? What would it look like if we truly heeded the prophet’s words? It seems so easy, but it is not. When we get a paper back which we worked so hard on and see the grade, the voice we hear is not a voice of praise. The voice we hear is the voice in the back of our head which says, “That preceptor is an idiot! He doesn’t understand what he is doing. You deserved an “A” on this paper.” When we look at our syllabus and all the reading we have, is it a voice of prayer in our head or is it the voice of something else saying, “This is ridiculous! Why do they assign so much reading? This is not fair!?” These are the voices which dominate our thoughts. But, you know the people in exile heard voices too. They heard voices saying, “This is not right! God will deliver you soon and crush the Babylonians under his foot.” These voices were saying, “The Babylonians are evil, you should resist them with all you have, and the Lord will protect you.” These voices like the voices we hear are calls to the easy response. They are calls to make the people feel good. They are calls which tell them exactly what they want to hear. But the Lord calls them out. God tells the people, “Do not listen to them! I did not send them!” God does not allow us to accept the easy answer, the feel good response. Instead, God forces us to confront the realities of our sin. God calls us to take the higher road knowing that when we are in Exile, God is with us. God calls us to be in the present, and to make the most of this time we are given. And, finally, God calls us to live our lives in prayer and through prayer for those around us.

For the people of Israel and Judah, the exile was the defining moment in their lives as a people. It is out of this time when they truly gained an identity. In exile, they began to look back and write their story as a people, producing the texts of the Torah. The people went into exile beaten and defeated with a limited understanding of God. It was in the exile when they discovered the true awesome reality of what it means to have one God who is the Lord of all. Israel learned what it means to a community together, and how to be the people of God in both tough times and in the times of joy. The people of exile learned what it means to live in peace and hope within a context which is neither peaceful nor hopeful. We find ourselves this day coming to Duke beaten and defeated with a limited understanding of God. We find ourselves exiled in the land of books, lectures, precepts. Hear this letter of Jeremiah. Hear these words of hope, these calls to action. Israel emerged a people of stronger faith, and a people with a clearer sense of purpose. It is my prayer that this day we too can discover their road of hope and peace, and that through their example we too can emerge from our exile to engage the Church, the academy, and the world as a people confident in God who was, the God who is and the God who is to come. Amen.

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Conversing on Violence

One of the joys of being a Divinity student is being able to meet and interact with man different people from many different traditions. This is why I am excited to share with you an article written by one of my good friends and frequent theological conversation partner, Ms. Jessica Andrews. Both of us are working on an event next Fall which will focus on issues surrounding moral conscience and war. It is a subject which I have not engaged very much, but as I look around and see our country at war, I think that we as people whose morals are derivative from our faith in Jesus and his gospel of love, we need to be active in talking about how, if at all, Christians can support war. My mind is truly not made up on this issue yet, but I think that Jessica’s call for real conversations rooted in the humanity of war instead of an impersonal theological debate is a word desperately needed for our world.

Engaging Each Other in Violence–Jessica Andrews

I was raised as a Mennonite. As such, I was taught that Jesus calls us to lives of radical discipleship that include, among other things, a commitment to non-violence. Throughout my youth I questioned this and sought answers for myself. Through this process, I was occasionally mocked and prodded by those around me who wondered how I could be a Christian or an American without supporting war. They asked me, again and again, what I would do if someone was going to kill my family, and what would have happened if America had not joined the war against Hitler. They often found little satisfaction in my answers (and, though I would not have admitted it at the time, neither did I). Through this and since that time, I have developed a strong belief in the morality of, and power in, Jesus’ call to non-violence, but I have gone through this formation in an environment that has been sheltered from nearly all immediate physical threats.
This is the story of most North American Mennonites of this generation. We accept and genuinely believe that Christ calls us to lives of non-violence, but usually the extent to which that belief is tested is a little mocking here and a few insults there. Even in our recent history, this was not the case. I have uncles who registered as conscientious objectors and served in South America, as well as one who spent time in prison for draft evasion. Without being faced with the draft, often my generation of Mennonites can clothe itself in the identity that our predecessors struggled to gain without having to do any of the hard work. This does not necessarily make our commitment worth any less, but there is a difference. Because of this, I have been profoundly struck by the stories of those who are engaging in a struggle to follow their conscience while on the battlefield. These soldiers are doing the hard work that most those of us who are raised to “believe” in nonviolence no longer have to do. Because I do not have the experience of being at war, I cannot fully comprehend their stories; however, as a child of God, I also cannot avoid the conversation.
The documentary film Soldiers of Conscience follows 8 highly thoughtful people – 4 of whom are in the military and appear in uniform, and 4 of whom served in the military and became conscientious objectors. In this film, the soldiers tell their stories. They tell how they grew up, and of the things that shaped them, challenged them, tore them to pieces and built them up again. They tell profoundly moving stories of the intersections of joy and pain that make them who they are.
For those of us who have been insulated from the graphic reality of war, the stories into which this film throws us are painful. It is hard to hear about methods of interrogation. It is difficult to be brought into someone’s struggle with choosing whether or not to shoot another human. I didn’t want to see bodies ripped apart by bullets and explosions. However, I refused to let my eyes be torn away; I refused to stop up my ears. When we encounter the terrible reality of the experience of war, limited and distant though our encounter is, it does not let us forget. The truth first demands tears, and those tears must develop into conversations. The truth refuses to leave us even if we go home at the end of the night and attempt to continue life as though we were unchanged. We cannot wipe what we have seen and heard from our eyes, minds and hearts. We cannot, and we should not. The shared stories of these soliders demand that although we will certainly not all come to the same conclusions about our role in war, we cannot just turn away and ignore what we have seen. When we refuse to turn away, look a person straight in the eyes, and encounter their heart – true encounter – we change, and there is no going back.
The conversations that spring from such an encounter are not easy. Too often I have seen them fall prey to the illusion that when good, moral people choose to engage questions regarding the morality of killing another human in war, we will eventually all come to agree on the “proper” course of action. When this occurs, everything in these conversations degenerates into a debate. We forget that all of us have wept over the pain we have seen. We cease to really engage each other as people, and instead choose to compare, contrast, and argue ideologies. We forget that we are people who not only imbue, but also create every aspect of this story, and we, particularly those of us who have lived a life isolated from the experience of war, have the debilitating pride to insist that the confidence we have in our own belief renders the other person’s beliefs invalid. Real conversations will not be easy, but we must not let ourselves dilute the harsh reality of encounter with the soothing balm of disembodied debate. Together, we must love, cry, hunger, scream, mourn, and love some more as we seek, in some way, to really understand both the first hand experiences of individuals, as well as what we, as a collective human body, have seen and experienced as a people at war. There – in that place, where we stare together into the eyes of truth and refuse to back down – lies hope.
Why is it that in this cruel and twisted world that often seems to reject the humanity of its inhabitants, we can gain the most hope by looking deep into the places of the most pain? Perhaps it is because it is at this intersection that we see most clearly what must change. It is in this place that we see the best and the worst of what we are: the image of God, scarred by sin. In our experiences of pain, we hold our Divine identity side by side with that which tears us apart – but we cannot settle for accepting this simply because it is the current reality that we know all too well. Joshua Casteel, one of the conscientious objectors who shares his story in the film, states, “I have a different picture of tomorrow’s humanity, and I want to be involved with creating that.”
So do I.
If you would like to be a part of this conversation, please look up the “Duke Conscience” group on Facebook, which can be found here:

This article first appeared in Duke Divinity School’s Online journal, Confessio. Used with permission.