Nov. 28, 2021; 1st Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
There’s an episode of the TV show Friends where Joey and Phoebe have a disagreement about doing good deeds. Joey insists that “selfless good deeds don’t exist” and Phoebe sets out to prove him wrong. She tells Monica about sneaking over to her neighbor’s yard to rake his leaves, “but he caught me and force-fed me cider and cookies and then I felt wonderful.” Then she calls in to give money to the PBS telethon—even though she hates PBS; but her pledge ends up pushing them over the fund-raising goal and brings accolades and attention to her friend, Joey, who took her pledge call. It seems, in the end, that maybe Joey is right; maybe selfless good deeds don’t exist.
There are times in scripture where God says to help people because it is the good and right thing to do. The Israelites should have compassion because they have experienced their own hardships: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19) God’s people should care for others just because God says so: “seek justice, / rescue the oppressed, / defend the orphan, /plead for the widow. . . . For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 1:17) There are some Phoebe arguments here.
But maybe Jeremiah, who we read from today, is more in line with Joey. At the very least, God’s words to the people in this morning’s reading certainly don’t promote selfless good deeds. God says: “Seek the welfare of the city where Ihave sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
God’s concern is clearly for the people, not the city. The reason the people should seek the welfare of the city and pray for the city is not for the sake of the city, but because their welfare is connected to that of the city.
At first glance, this may seem like a harsh—even an unfaithful—perspective on care and good deeds. But it is a very understandable perspective when we consider the context in which Jeremiah’s letter was written. The people receiving this letter are Israelites who have been taken into exile in Babylon. So the city God is telling them to pray for, to do good for, is not Jerusalem or even one of their own little towns. It is an enemy city. And not a good-natured rival city, like Manhattan. Babylon is a city whose people have taken them captive and a city that continues to pose a threat to their homeland. To seek the welfare of this city is truly asking a lot.
Which may be why God says, “Hey, don’t do it for them. Do it for yourselves.”
In seeking the welfare of the city, the people will improve their own lives. And, in caring for themselves, in seeking their own welfare, they contribute to the welfare of the city. God instructs the people in exile to build houses, plant gardens, form families. All of these acts contribute not just to their own well-being, but also to a whole and healthy society.
As we continue reading this passage from Jeremiah, we run into a grammatical problem that is pervasive in scripture: the lack of a plural “you” in the English language.
Verse 11 might be familiar to some of you. Maybe you doodled it in your journal as a teenager or read it on a graduation card or have seen it on a mug or sticker or, for me, an ipad case: “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.”
God has a plan for me! A plan for a future with hope! God has a good college picked out for me. A good partner. A good job.
Well . . . I mean . . . maybe. God definitely loves us and wants good for our lives. But that is not what this verse is saying. Because this is not a singular you.
“I know the plans I have for y’all, says the Lord, . . . plans for y’all’s welfare . . . to give y’all a future with hope.”
God is not helping someone make a big (or small) life decision, God is comforting a whole group of people who have been displaced from their homeland and taken to enemy territory.
The “you” that God has plans for is much bigger than me, or even just my family, or just my community. Actually, this “you” is a very big “you” indeed. This “you” goes beyond any of the individuals that God is speaking to at this time.
At the end of today’s reading, God says: “I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” God’s plan for their future includes taking them back to Jerusalem. Except that a few verses back God says they will be in Babylon for seventy years. Which means that nobody who is reading these words from Jeremiah will even be alive when the people are restored to their homeland.
The “you” (plural) is not even entirely for the people who hear the message; it includes those who are not yet born.
So a question I’ve been pondering is: How big is my “you”? How deeply do I recognize the extent to which my welfare is connected to the welfare of my city, my country, our planet? How do my “selfless” good deeds actually contribute to my own welfare in subtle and not-so-subtle ways?
When I think about seeking the welfare of the city, I think about our work with Justice Matters. The ways that we are seeking to help those in our community who are without homes, who are experiencing discipline in the schools, who are involved with the criminal legal system, who are elderly and struggling to find good care. Of course, some of us are some of these people. And many of us love some of these people. And we all could become some of these people. And we could take any one of these four research areas and talk about how their welfare is our welfare.
When I think about the broad you, about the people hearing words that will only apply to future generations, I think about the climate crisis. About all of the things we need to do so that our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, can arrive “back” at a healthy home.
Is there such a thing as a selfless good deed? I think if we understand how broad God’s “you” is here, the answer is no. Not because we don’t sincerely do things for the good of other people. Not because we have selfish intentions behind every action. But just because our selves are so connected to everyone else’s selves—our you is so broad.
Which makes this, I think, a good if unconventional message for the first Sunday of Advent. As we enter into the “season of giving,” we are reminded that we truly are connected to each other—that our welfare is tied to the welfare of our neighbors.
You will receive many requests for monetary and other contributions during the season—ornaments on our church giving tree, our “fill the pantry” Sunday in a couple of weeks, all of the mail you are getting, and the people ringing bells outside the grocery store. It is a season when there is ample opportunity to seek the welfare of others. Perhaps we can view each request for help not as a nuisance, but as a reminder that their welfare is our welfare. As an invitation to contribute to and pray for the welfare of our city, our country, our world.
We cannot give to everyone. But we can give to some ones. We are not called to solve all of the problems, but to seek the welfare of those around us.
I would encourage you, as well, to tend to yourself. To build houses, plant gardens, tend to your family. In the community’s welfare is our welfare. And in our welfare is the welfare of our community.
Whatever it is that you enjoy about this season, enjoy it! Whatever stresses you out, let it go, if you can.
Maybe you feel a bit in exile yourself these days: continuing isolation from COVID, conflicts with loved ones, health concerns, job stress, just trying to practice Advent in a world determined to sell you Christmas. For all of those ways you feel not-quite-at-home, I encourage you to know that God is, in fact, your true home.
I leave you with these words as you begin your Advent journey: God says: When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me.”