How to Vote with God – an election day message from Jeremiah

Tomorrow is the big day. We will all vote and bring to fruition this 18 month-long election season, which has been divisive, anxiety-inducing, disturbing, and unnerving. We’ve seen the worst in each other, the worst in ourselves, and will have to come terms with the outcome; which, at this point, very few will be able to take any satisfaction in. I wish I could say that this will all come to an end tomorrow, but I think we all know that’s not true. There will be some fall-out, some hard feelings, and backlash.

I’ve been fairly opinionated on who and what I support, and I understand if some of you are coming into reading this with suspicion, that I’m going to lay out a biblical argument for the candidate I have chosen, or particular propositions. But this post is not for that. This post is something of a sermon about what should be on the minds and hearts of the Christian who walks into a voting booth tomorrow. It’s a sermon about how to live in a place and participate in its well-being. As the reader, it is up to you to interpret how this applies to your own ballot, to your local elections and measures, and ultimately to your candidate. I don’t seek to change anyone’s mind or anyone’s vote with this sermon. If anything, I hope that it will only change your posture: the way you see yourself as participating in the process of voting, in engaging with the world in a political way. If we agree on nothing else, I hope we can all agree that we want to vote in Christian kinds of ways; ways that make this world that God loves more like the one God is reconciling us to become. Voting is only one tiny part of how we do that, but it is a valuable one.

As we anxiously enter our polling places, maybe the comforting words of scripture come to our minds. I know that many of us, when we need a verse of comfort, often turn to Jeremiah 29:11. Most of us can quote this on command:

 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This is great news for a country in a state like ours, and no one could blame you for quoting this to yourself this week, or at any other period of stress in your life individually or in our shared life politically. It’s important to remember that God is pulling us toward a better future, and that there is always hope. God is not crumpling us up like a failed art project to start over, but is always finding new ways to work with the mess we’ve made to bring a hope and a future.

What is a huge bummer, in my opinion, is that everyone quotes Jeremiah 29:11 and never reads the rest of Jeremiah 29. It’s common Christian practice to take a single verse and make it into a mantra or “life-verse”, and I do think this has some value. But often it robs the verse of much of its meaning, because the Bible is not a collection of helpful sayings and sentences, but a dynamic collection of various writings that bear witness in hundreds of different ways to the work of God in history. When we take out a sentence, we sometimes take it from the middle of a poem, from a letter written to a specific audience, from a history book or a parable. At worst, we can end up believing some terrible things because we don’t do diligence to the source of our “verse”. (This is called proof-texting, and has done immeasurable damage to Christians and those they encountered for thousands of years.)

Reading Jeremiah 29:11 in its context is so much better. You find out who it was originally intended for, what it meant to them, and you can see yourself even better in it. And then you come to discover that these promises of God have been fulfilled in the past, and you learn exactly what it is that God expects out of us in order to find this “plan” that God has laid out for us.

What does this have to do with voting? Well, Jeremiah 29 is a letter written to the people of God who are in exile. And I have come to believe, and suspect that you might too, that our current situation as Christians in America can best be described by this same narrative: exile. We are strangers in a land where we once had a foothold, a primary seat at the table, and now we are all scattered and disillusioned and fiercely divided. Now, we can argue about how we got here. (I’ll save that sermon for another time, but if you want my thoughts, read the book of Micah.) But at the present moment, in America, we Christians are in Exile! There are conservative Christians and liberal Christians and everything in between, none of whom can really get along at all, and our leaders don’t really stand for any of us. As many news sources have announced, (and many great scholars have been saying for fifty years,) the Evangelical political machine has all but died, and we’re all left not knowing quite how we got here or what to do about it. It’s a horrible situation. It’s what has caused our churches to die, for young people to leave church altogether, and for an election like this one to even be possible. Something is dying.

But the news is not all bad. For one thing, we’re not the first people to go through this, and now more than ever we can look to the part of our Bibles we’ve been neglecting and see teachings that have long been forgotten. (Trust me, those pages aren’t as crinkly as the other ones in American Bibles.) Secondly, it’s okay not to be afraid that something is dying, because we happen to be people who believe in a God that brings things back from the dead. (Your mind might jump to the Resurrection of Jesus, but you can stay in the prophets and read Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones and get a sense that God can even bring Exiles back.)

And Jeremiah 29 is specifically written to those in Exile who are asking this important question: “How do we live, as people of God, in a place and a time when being the people of God doesn’t carry as much weight anymore?” I think if we’re honest, this is the question of this election.

If you feel so bold, take a moment to read Jeremiah 29:4-14. If you want, read all of Jeremiah 29, or read all of Jeremiah! It won’t disappoint. But I want to highlight a few messages for Exiles like us from this letter of Jeremiah, from the words of God to God’s people who found themselves in a similar situation. Each one will first be a word of what to do as people who find themselves in exile, and the second one will be a word of how to participate in that by how we vote.

1.  Get Comfortable, and Be Present. God says to those in Exile that it’s going to be a while. Verse 5 says to build houses and plant gardens. In other words, this Exile might be for a while, and you’re not going anywhere. One thing you will learn if you spend time in the prophets is that, for God’s purposes, the Exile was not an accident. It was a judgment, and the Bible bears witness to God letting the Exile happen as part of the journey of the people of God. It’s not a time to get angry or cast blame as to how we got here. It’s a time to build houses and plant gardens. Get comfortable in this place that God has led us to. We may not be a “Christian nation” anymore, but God is still God, and God is just as much God in Sweden, in Iran, in Russia, in Australia and Austria as God is God here today, yesterday, and tomorrow, and God has led us here. 

To be honest and obedient in where God has led us is to be present and local in our participation. It means that where we have found ourselves matters, both in place, and in time. Don’t spend your time longing for a bygone era, wishing to go back there. Don’t flee to another place where you think God might be more God in. Be where you are, be when you are, and seek God there. Pay attention to local elections and measures, and seek God’s best in the minutiae. Chances are that more of your neighbors’ lives be be affected by the Propositions that you didn’t research than by who gets to live in the White House.

2. Invest, and Think Ahead. Verse 6 expands this idea by telling Exiles to get married, to have children, and for those children to have children. It makes this point again that this Exile might be for a while, so put down roots where you are rather than being anxious about where you wish you might be. More so, it is a call to invest in the future. Maybe the hope that you have may not come to fruition in your lifetime, but the choices that you make now will affect how many will experience God in the future.

Thinking ahead means voting in such a way that goes beyond the immediate moment and its needs and asks what kind of world we are creating for our children and our grandchildren. It means not only caring about how candidates and propositions determine the things that we think are the most important, but how they will come to affect multiple generations ahead of us. What world are we creating for them? When they read the history books, what will they think of the decisions we made?

3. Everyone’s welfare is your welfare. This is the most important teaching that I think the prophet Jeremiah has for our political engagement as people of God. When we quote Jeremiah 29:11 out of context, we are hoping for God’s prosperity and welfare. When the verse says, “plans to prosper you”, a better translation is “plans for your prosperity/welfare/peace”. That word is a noun, and it’s the Hebrew word “shalom”. You’ve probably heard of it. It has a wide meaning, but is often translated “peace”. More than that, it means God’s perfect peace realized on Earth. And that is what we’re all after, isn’t it? Well, earlier in the passage, God actually tells us exactly where to find that shalom. Verse 7 says, “Seek the [shalom] of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its [shalom] you will find your [shalom].”

Boom. Wow. This is the message of Jeremiah, the hope for participating where we feel exiled. This is fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:11. Every time you’ve quoted this verse seeking God’s plan for your welfare, you were only four verses from its fulfillment. Do you want God’s peace on you, on your family, on your church or on your country? Seek God’s peace for everyone in your city, and you’ll find it. This should come as no surprise for followers of Jesus, and yet it always seems to still catch us by surprise.

As people in Exile, the way we find God’s favor for ourselves and for our country is by seeking welfare for everyone. This is not Welfare with a capital ‘W’, though that may be part of the answer. But as people of God who enter a voting booth tomorrow, please remember this if nothing else: if you vote for your own welfare, for yourself or your own betterment, and you are not also voting for the benefit of everyone who finds themselves in your city – you will not find your welfare there. You will find peace and prosperity for yourself and your family when you seek it for everyone else, especially the least among you. This is the lesson that Israel forgot and brought them to Exile. This is the lesson that America forgets time and time again.

4.  Ignore False Prophets. It’s interesting that when we name the famous prophets of the Bible, we name Jeremiah and Isaiah and Micah and Ezekiel. The truth is there were tons of prophets at that time, and those four were some of the least popular. For the most part, they were hated and despised, because they told the actual word of God, rather than what people wanted to hear. There are prophets who feed into what you already believe and your current prejudices, who stir up things in you to get you riled up for a cause, or distracted from another one. The prophets who are truly from God don’t tend to get much credit until long after their time, and sometimes not even then.

This election, we’ve seen religious leaders, pastors, professors, and candidates spout religion and quote verses in support of their candidates. Both of the major candidates profess Christianity at their convenience, and otherwise fail to uphold anything remotely close to it. You can Google a Christian defense of Trump, Hillary, and everything on the ballot. However much it is possible for you, tune these people out. Seek out Christian leaders who you trust, who you actually know, not just ones who made videos you used to watch or pastors a big fancy church you’ve heard of. If all else fails, seek out true prophets of the past, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Jesus. Study them, and see if you don’t find them speaking truth into your ballot.

And finally, remember to hope. Exile may be for a while. Whoever is elected, whatever gets passed or not, God will be God, and God is bending this whole world toward Shalom. This passage brings this message in full force for those of us who need to hear it, that if we heed these words and at the end of our Exile:

“When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will give heed to you. You will search for me and find me, if only you seek me wholeheartedly. I will be at hand for you – declares the Lord – and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places to which I have banished you – declares the Lord – and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

As you vote tomorrow, vote with hope. Vote knowing that however fed up you are with how things are and how they’ve become, that God is still God, and you are here to seek God’s best for where you are. Seek God’s best for your city, and you’ll find God’s best for yourself. Seek God’s best for the generations who will come long after you’re gone, and you’ll find it for yourself. Seek God’s Shalom in the voting booth, and everywhere you go afterwards.

Peace, my friends, and Godspeed.

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Theology of Diversity – A Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

The Word of the Lord.

More than ever before, I fear we need a nuanced theology of diversity and unity. This week, thousands are marching in the streets of Baltimore to show the world that things are not the way they are supposed to be. We need a nuanced theology of diversity and unity, and I believe we have the earliest renderings of one here in the story of Babel. But just like so many texts before it, certain readings of this story have done more harm than good, and led many to believe that diversity is a curse rather than a blessing; or they reduce the story, to condemning merely pride, and not the deeper sin at work – isolationism, fear of the other, uniformity. As we read this text closely, I hope that we can all see that unity and diversity are meant to be held together in God’s beautiful creation, and that God does not punish but corrects the course that creation was intended for all along – a creation teeming with difference and complexity, but which comes together in service to one another and the Creator. A creation where particular races are not unequally punished; where churches don’t wall themselves up from a world they call unclean; where we stockpile fewer weapons and open more food-banks. I’m sorry to begin this class on such a dour note; but I believe that these real world issues are at stake when we approach scripture. And in our text this evening, at stake is our understanding of God’s desire for unity, diversity, and identity.

I love these early stories in Genesis, because they are so fundamentally concerned with those issues that cut right to the core of who we are. Genesis 1-11 is called Primeval history by biblical scholars because it contains these pre-historical, fantastic stories that have less to do with telling us specific things that happened back then, but rather these amazing tales about the same things we still ponder now. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Is there any justice in the world? What is evil? What is family? How do communities form? These basic philosophical and sociological questions are met in Genesis with theological responses, giving glimpses more than answers; opening our eyes wider rather than focusing our gaze. This story, maybe more than the others, invites us to see ourselves and our world through its lens. Although it names the city Babel, there are no other names in this story. Instead, the phrase “all the earth” is used five times, and I believe that “all the earth” is meant to include us. The way it describes humanity, and how God responds, will be just as true today as it was for those earliest communities. It is, in many ways, a parable more than an origin story. It is about issues we face today.

When we read the text closely, we see that Babel is more than a tower, but a City, and the City is far more concerning to God. Think about it: this story is usually called: “the Tower of Babel”. This symbolism becomes an analogy for human pride and arrogance, when we try to construct something that makes us seem like god, we compare it to this story. But let’s hear their building plans again, and see where their priorities really were: “Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; OTHERWISE we shall be scattered abroad on the face of the earth.” That otherwise is important, it’s the whole reason for their building. They’re afraid to be scattered. What does that have to do with the tower? Their main goal is not to reach up to heaven, like so many readings have said, but they are building because they want to all stay together, safe and secure. The tower seems like an afterthought – not only to them, but especially to God! Ironically, despite their best attempts to put the top of their tower “in the heavens”, God still has to “come down” to see it. It turns out that the tower was little threat to God’s superiority. But God is very concerned about their holing up in a City: “Look, they are all one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do.”

And we have seen the dangers that come when we unify in fear. Nazism, racism, sexism are all built on this same foundation as the City of Babel – that to be safe we must fear the things and especially the people who are different and separate ourselves from them – either by eliminating them, persecuting them, subjugating them or building walls between us and them. When we shut ourselves off from the other, evil takes root. How can selfless love exist in a place where everyone looks like ourselves? In Genesis 11, God is not condemning the Tower. God laughs at the Tower. But God fears what will happen if they follow through with their isolated City, and we have certainly proven God right in that case.

Keeping this in mind, we see God deal with this City; not through an act of punishment or cursing, but a corrective in line with the original plans of creation. Way back in the garden, God commands the first humans to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. God gives this commandment again after the Flood, to the family of Noah. So twice now in Genesis the command has been given to fill the earth, but in this story we try to do the opposite. We want to wall ourselves up and stay safe, making sure we all speak the same way, look the same way, think the same way. This was never God’s plan, as we see in the beautiful diversity of the rest of creation. God creates ALL the birds of the air and creatures of the sea and beasts on the land – and as we have discovered this amazing planet throughout history we find more and more unique and amazing things. God does not want one people, one nation, one language – on the contrary, the Book of Revelation envisions: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

At Pentecost, there is this beautiful picture of the coming of the Holy Spirit, where instead of uniting everyone in language, using the logic of Babel, instead everyone hears the message in their own language. They don’t leave all speaking the same tongue, but encountering the Gospel in their own distinct articulation. Like a great musical number that can be played by different instruments, in different rhythms, and with multiple harmonies, so the creation of God deserves to be encountered and expressed in ever-new ways. When God scatters them with new languages, it empowers Creation to encounter God in new ways, and to experience God’s best gift to the world: unity, within our diversity! God does not curse the world with new languages and nations. God blesses the world with diversity, whether they like it or not!

We have been given glimpses of this idea, of diversity and unity held together as companions and not adversaries. Creation, Pentecost and Revelation, in these big moments of past, present and future; a multitude of unique creations sharing a creator and a purpose; many languages hearing one Gospel; and finally every nation and tongue singing one song. This imagery permeates scripture. Even Paul, in describing what it is like to be in the community of God, says it’s like one body with many different parts. No one part should wish that it is a different one, or worse, think that another part is less important than they are. But as one body, we exist as a collection of parts moving toward one purpose. The City of Babel would have a body made up of only heads, babbling in vain, or a body of legs walking around in circles. As funny of an image as this is, we know there is more at stake. When our theology of unity and diversity is not robust enough to celebrate both, the City of Babel becomes Nazi Germany, or the Jim Crow south, or Westboro Baptist. The Bible celebrates the complex interplay of diversity and unity because if we lose sight of it, we quickly lose ourselves; or, worse, we lose each other.

The only name in the story is Babel, and we are told that it is named after its confusion. They wanted to make a name for themselves, but they are named after their ironic failure to do so. What will we be named for? As we build our cities, whether our City is a small group or a Seminary or a committee or even a Church, what will our name be called? If we fill our cities with people who are just like us and shut the door behind them, perhaps we need God to enter in and scatter us about again. God may bless us by shaking up our “cities”, whether we like it or not. The truth about names is that, just like at birth, we do not get to name ourselves. The more we pursue a great name for ourselves the faster we will lose it. Like so much irony in this story and in the Gospel itself, a great name is a gift given to those who don’t even want it. What name will we be given?

As I close tonight, I want to leave us with this benediction: May we become settlers who love to be scattered, unifiers who love diversity, and builders of unfortified cities with open gates. May we be a Church that rebukes the world for building Cities of Babel and carrying out its laws. May God enter swiftly in as at Babel, as at Calvary, to save us from ourselves and the desperate situation we are in. And, more than ever, may we never use God’s name in vain for our selfish tendencies. And until the day when we will have learned these lessons in full, may we pray for God’s mercy for fewer casualties along the way. Amen.