“I would write,” someone said to me recently. “I would write if I didn’t have such challenges with my work – such preoccupations. I could find the time to do creative writing if only my job didn’t present one issue after another, demanding my attention, my time, and whatever I have left of creativity.” I imagine that many of us can resonate with this sentiment, even if our vocation isn’t writing. Without various pressures – ones we are certain are external – we would be free to be creative, intellectual, artistic, athletic, reflective, spiritual, inventive, whatever. So many pressures crowding out so little time. We cannot be our full selves. We cannot exercise the real gifts we know we have been given. We cannot fully be.
I share this example of a recent conversation because I imagine that it is where many of us, in this lovely sanctuary, are today. Whether we are younger kids, students, working or non-working people, retired people, we identify and know that there are things that we have to express, in whatever form, that do not come out of us because we feel bound to – chained to – jobs or responsibilities or worries or inadequacies that take away the creative energy in us that we know to be the source of the unique voice we have been given to share with our broader communities. Why aren’t the things I have to say available to me somehow? What prevents me from really accessing them and giving them voice? What, out there, is my impediment for really being, saying, doing?
Our two biblical texts for today speak to situations in which people are as claimed by this question as are I imagine many of us here today – and even more so. The prophet Jeremiah writes to and about people now in multiple generations of exile. The prophet Hananiah and others had declared that the exile from Judah to Babylon would be brief, un-alarmingly brief, but this was not proving to be true. False prophets usually err in one direction or another – “tribulation will be over soon” (that was Hananiah), or, “the world is ending now ” (let your imagination cascade over infinite false prophets who’ve had that message, at worst ending in modern mass suicides). In fact, the cataclysmic exile of the Judeans took generations to rectify, and was ended by Cyrus of Persia (now Iran). Jeremiah wrote to people in the middle of the Babylonian exile – to people still in the fire, with no exit known – and he told them to flourish where they were – in the fire. It was not where they wanted to be – in captivity in Babylon – but it’s where they were and it’s where they were going to be for a while . Jeremiah told them, “You can flourish there, or you can wither. You choose.”
It’s really their choice. No one wants to be in exile. No one wants to be in a place profoundly distant from where their heart wants to be, from home, from the communities we feel called to be part of. And yet Jeremiah tells them and us, “Set down roots!” (Unthinkable – abominable – who is this guy?) “Make lives for yourselves – marry local folks, build a home, join all the community clubs.” (The guy is nuts – I don’t want to be here, don’t want to know these people, I hate what they stand for; I attribute to them the evisceration of my people.) “Go ahead, make yourselves a real home here.” It was an unconscionable suggestion, really.
And it wasn’t, as the exiles first thought, about making life easier for their captors, or their opponents, or those with whom they disagreed (think of whatever might be your own situation). Jeremiah wasn’t telling them to “go along to get along,” he was simply telling them to thrive. He was telling them, “who they are, what they value, and what they have done to you doesn’t matter. You matter. Be yourselves. Don’t not thrive because you don’t like the bullies around you; thrive in the face of the bullies around you. If you don’t thrive, they win. But don’t just thrive to beat them, thrive because that’s what you deserve, it’s what God hopes for you and for all who are oppressed.”
In fact, don’t just thrive there, says Jeremiah, but “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” It’s not just about your welfare – in the midst of oppression seek the true welfare of those who imprison you – who chain you. You - yourself - become unchained – you rid yourself of your chains – when you live fully and freely for yourself, and also for those who are your captors. As you make yourself more alive, make your captors more alive, not to shame them, but to show them what living communities look like, what compassion looks like, what their own thriving might look like. Help them to thrive for their own sake, for when they thrive, you will also thrive too – “in their welfare you will find your welfare.” If we refuse to care for others, we can only be hurt as well.
Indeed, the world is not so neatly split up into “ them ” and “ us ” – if only! If it were, we’d split ourselves off from the greedy, the power-hungry, the mean people of the world – we’d do it in a heartbeat. But the prophet Jeremiah reminds the Judeans that their welfare is wrapped up together with their captors’. The might not like each other at all, but they are intrinsically bound up together. They sink or swim together. So do many warring nations today around the world, starting in the crowded, multi-ethnic countries of the Middle East. So does the United States.
The Apostle Paul writes to his young disciple Timothy, while Paul is apparently chained in a Roman prison dungeon under the Emperor Nero around the year 66 C.E. Timothy is now likely caring for the church that Paul had founded in Ephesus. Timothy has a hard job – the church is full of people of many opinions. Paul has his own opinions, as always, but the first is how to support Timothy. During a time when the Gospel of Jesus Christ was under great assault from the Emperor Nero, Paul sought to support Timothy in his leadership of the Ephesian church. Importantly, he let Timothy know that Timothy’s own success – or anyone’s – isn’t necessarily a comment about Timothy’s own gifts . Here’s a message for all of us today – we do have wonderful talents, all God-given, but sometimes we find ourselves, as at Ephesus, trying to exercise leadership in very challenging situations. Paul tells Timothy, “Do not doubt your own gifts, but also don’t shrink from going into the fray. You have something to say. I know this because I believe I do, too. I have spoken the truth I know to the point of being imprisoned. I don’t ask that of you, I just ask you to persevere where you are. I preached the Gospel, and so I wound up in chains. But God’s Word will never be chained. The Gospel remains unchained, free, on the loose. Anyone who inhabits the Good News, no matter their physical circumstances, is truly unchained!”
And so my friends, on this “ regular ” Sunday on a beautiful fall, October day we are called to inhabit our “ regular ” vocation – to inhabit the Gospel of Jesus Christ no matter what we feel are the chains around us. We are neither in prison nor exile, but we are fettered by worries, meannesses, losses, duties, responsibilities, more responsibilities, and endless responsibilities. We can feel chained by all that we think limits us externally, or internally. We would have the time to write, for instance, if only we weren’t inhibited by external demands. We would be faithful, for instance, if not for our internal deficiencies.
Both impediments – structural and spiritual – are ones that Jeremiah and Paul bid us to overcome, and they tell us how to do so. They tell us to resist any impediments, wherever we find ourselves, and to insist on building, on being productive. They remind us that God and Christ offer limitless support in doing so. The Good News of Jesus Christ is always unchained, free, on the loose – and when we resist all impediments to proclaiming the Gospel and living out the truth we know, we too are unchained. Building real lives, wherever we find ourselves – this is resistance . Building real lives in the midst of adversity, of exile – this is resistance, this is being unchained. Paul was in chains, and his captors would soon kill him, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ was always unchained. It is always free. It is always testifying to something infinitely greater than our human understanding – and so Paul knew himself to be a captive and yet, truthfully, unchained. “But the word of God is not chained,” he wrote to Timothy from his chains, and he tells us the same. Whatever impediments we experience to faithful living and self-expression – our responsibilities, our feelings of inadequacy (and Timothy had those), our inhibited creativity and courage – we must take heart. We testify at all times to something so much more powerful than our own abilities to witness to it. Even if we can’t help our limitations, the Gospel to which we testify is always and forever…unchained.
Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 158-163