Let us pray: In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

I’m not who you think I am. You celebrate me now. But I remember when you didn’t. I know where I came from and you never let me forget it. I hear my family’s shame every time you call my name: Jeremiah ben Hilkiah of Anathoth.   

It’s not my fault my ancestors chose the losing side. Adonijah ben David, David’s boy, was a fine strapping prince of a man. And with David lying impotent on his deathbed, and I do mean impotent – there was that pretty girl they brought him in hopes of stirring something up who left unmolested. As David lay there not having designated an heir, Adonijah declared himself king and my ancestor Abiathar the high priest backed his play. Then Bathsheba walked into the room with the kind of dignity that cannot be taught but only lived and told David that he had named her son Solomon as his successor, but there was no record of that. And then the prophet Nathan came in as they had prearranged and said the same thing. Everyone could see it was a set-up, everyone but David.

So, Adonijah went down and took my ancestors with him, they were exiled to Anathoth – I guess it was better than execution. But Anathoth? You know Anathoth. No one does. But back then, everyone knew it was in Benjamin, bad news Benjamin. Benjamin, the home of the failed king Saul. Benjamin, the site of an unspeakable crime against a Levite’s wife. Benjamin, where the first Israelite civil war that turned brother against brother was fought. Benjamin who was almost wiped off the map. Benjamin who turned to trafficking women and kidnapping girls – sometimes their own relatives – to breed themselves back into existence. That’s where I’m from. It’s all there in the very first line of my memoir: The words of Jeremiah ben Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin. If you know how to read in the gaps and between the lines and behind the text, it’s all there. My time traveling friend, Dr. Gafney, says that a text without a context is a pre-text. So I thought I should remind you who I am, who my people are as you say down here, and what my first readers and hearers and knew about me and my story and, why the folk in my time treated me the way they did. So you understand why I am still preaching the same sermon, to you all here today.

I was like Joan of Arc, while I was alive I was treated like a false prophet and even put on death row. Unlike Saint Joan, I survived. But only because one of the elders said that there was a real prophet named Micah who had the same critique of Jerusalem and its shining temple as I did. That wasn’t even the only time I was put in jail. Or the only time I was beaten. I couldn’t even go to my grave in peace. I was kidnapped by the very people who did not receive me as their prophet and taken to Egypt where I died. Some say I was martyred there. Those are stories for another day. After my death, like Joan of Arc, they pretty much made me a saint and published fifty-two chapters of my memoire.

Like Joan, while I was preaching, I was essentially a country bumpkin with dreams of making it big in the big city. I even told God once that I didn’t want to prophesy to poor people; I didn’t think they even knew the teachings of God – it never occurred to me to teach them. But with the boldness and brashness of youth I told God to send me to rich people. That I thought wealth and wisdom went together tells you something about how desperately poor I must’ve been in my youth.

I said, “These are only the poor, they have no sense;
for they do not know the way of the Holy One of Old,
the Torah, the teaching, of their God.
Let me go to the rich, the great, and speak to them;
surely they know the way of the Holy One of Old,
the Torah, the teaching, of their God.” (Jer. 5:4-5)

I went to Jerusalem, the big city, full of vim and vigor with my fresh calling and the promise of God to speak through my lips and my less than prestigious seminary degree and, I realized they had all gone astray, rich and poor, great and small alike. I preached in the city gates because they wouldn’t let someone like me, with my pedigree, anywhere near the temple. But the temple, oh! It was the grandest thing I had ever seen. It soared into the sky until it touched the very foundation of heaven. It was trimmed with more gold than I had ever seen in my life. And the entire population of my small town was walking in and out of its gates and colonnades and praying in its courtyards.

And the priests whose ancestor Zadok backed Solomon never gave me so much as a passing glance even though I was a priest too. I was from the wrong side of the tracks. And everybody knew it. I couldn’t even read and write. But I had a special friend, his name was Baruch and he wrote everything down for me. They always let him in the gates. (Jer. 36:4-18)  One time, he took my best sermon in and got an audience with the king and the king burned the entire first draft of my book. (Jer. 36:22-26) Then they tried to arrest me, again. God got me out that time. But that is another story.

God called me to Jerusalem but not to be invited to serve at the temple, God called me to preach against the temple and Jerusalem. People thought I was just being petty because of my background. They didn’t take me seriously, they didn’t understand. God had told me that Jerusalem, where God had once promised that their unspeakable Name would dwell forever, would fall because of the rottenness within. So I got as close as they would let me and I preached the words you heard today:

For if you all truly reform your ways and your doings, if you all truly do what is just between one person and another, if you all do not oppress the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or pour out innocent blood in this place…then I will dwell with you all in this place…

When I first preached those words like most of my people, I believed that there was only one place in which God would dwell. That place has become a battlefield. It has never known any peace longer than the forty years of rest the warrior-prophet Deborah won for it 600 years before my time.

From the moment God drew the land out of the waters of her womb and assigned guardianship and stewardship to the creatures she crafted out of it, the land was always and ever only a sacred trust, the obligation to care for it was the inheritance. But somewhere along the way people began to think of the land as God’s gift for them and only them, no matter who was already living in it. That’s why I preached, “Do not trust in them, these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Holy One, the temple of the Holy One, the temple of the Holy One.” Don’t imagine that this temple will always stand or that it is even the only place in which God may be found.

But they didn’t listen. And, Judah fell. The temple was ravished. And the people, my people, they were also ravished in every way. It was a bloodbath. Not even children were spared. And people argued theology, not as an academic exercise but as a way of understanding the world into which they had been thrust. Where was God? How could she let this happen? Is it really true that if bad things happen to you it’s because you deserve it? That is what the old preachers used to say, but I’m not so sure about that. Having seen the desecration of war I know that no one deserves the horrors that war brings to an entire people even if there are those within the midst who are guilty of atrocity themselves.

Dr. Gafney asked me to tell you my story because it’s not too late for you. For some of you, America is a temple that will never fall. You sing, “God bless America,” and trust that your wealth and military might, your vote and your democracy, will protect you and the American way will endure forever – and let’s be clear, some of it needs to fall. But God’s prophets are still preaching the same message: do not oppress the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or pour out innocent blood in this place.

Yet do you pour out the blood of innocents, daily. With your idolization of handguns and unequal access to healthcare and weaponization of food and famine you are no better than the Babylonians or the Assyrians. You are your own enslaving empire, trapping people in poverty and prosecuting them to death when they lash out in rage and frustration.

You build walls instead of welcome centers and on this Earth Day, pollute rivers with barbed wire and concrete, letting people die, letting children drown, rather than cross to safety, the dubious and insecure safety of the American empire built on stolen land, on the bones of the Coahuiltecans and Karankawa of the Rio Grande Valley, by the blood, sweat and tears of stolen people and the immigrants who followed them. What are you protecting? Nothing you have belongs to you. You did not create a single ray of sunshine or drop of petroleum. You did not endow yourself or your species with the competency to invent the combustion engine or the iPhone. This land is not yours! You are stewards. And the God who seeks to dwell with you in this place shall surely come for an accounting of your stewardship.

The promise God spoke through me to Jerusalem is still binding on anyone who enters the gates of any sanctuary to worship God, who by their action or inaction oppresses the widow, orphan or poor. My people were a perpetually oppressed people – except when we oppressed other peoples and sometimes we oppressed our own folk over petty distinctions and divisions, always seeking an “us” and a “them.” Our scriptures were texts of resistance to oppression; that’s why they still speak across the ages, because neither God nor humanity has changed.

We had an entire vocabulary of oppression. We had more than a dozen different words to describe the ways in which we were oppressed and oppressed each other. Today I am talking about economic oppression. That is what I was preaching about in this sermon almost 2500 years ago. Today there are more temples of different kinds soaring into the heavens and there are even more schemes to defraud the poor, keep the vulnerable vulnerable and the marginalized on the margins.

My people were so mired in structural patriarchy that they could not see that they created the very systems of indebtedness and insecurity that made widowhood a virtual death sentence. Yes there were women who survived patriarchy or carved out a life that was not subject to it, but only a few like Delilah and Judith rode off into the sunset with their lives in their own hands. God knows most widows and single mothers and grandparents raising their grandkids don’t have it like that.

In this Black Maternal Healthcare Month, we need to be reminded that, as the psalmist – who was most definitely not David said: God is Mother of orphans and defender of widows. (Psalm 68:4 (5)) Well, the manuscripts say “father” but since Job taught us that the only reproductive organ that God has in the scriptures is a womb (Job 38:8, 29), we will cut Dr. Gafney a little slack with her translation. The point is that God is invested in the wellbeing of women, particularly those who do not have what they need to make it in this world, to survive, thrive and flourish – [and that is not a man. Y’all are not back in the Iron Age with me, why are your social and sexual politics and theology so prehistoric?]

In my time an orphan was a fatherless child because of how nearly impossible it was for a woman to provide for herself and her children without a man. But today you have orphans who have both parents living. You have children and teens who are orphaned by parents and churches and school boards who don’t respect the plurality and transformational promise of their precious lives. Queer kids are bullied to death, denied healthcare or even the medical necessity of a bathroom, left to fend for themselves against idol worshiping politicians bringing the full might of this evil empire down on their sanctified heads. They who in some ways most closely reflect God’s first human creation, full of potentiality, containing the full rainbow prism of transformational possibility in one flesh.

But there was a man from Galilee who said, “I shall not leave you orphaned.” (John 14:22) Jesus is God come to dwell with us, the promise of God fulfilled. Jesus is the love of God incarnate. Jesus is the justice of God made manifest through the injustice of the cross. Empires will fall and the Church may fail but Jesus will save the oppressed and the oppressor, if you all truly reform your ways. Amen.

4 Easter Year C, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Earth Day

Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta

Jeremiah 7:1–7; Psalm 68:4–11; 1 Timothy 5:1–4, 8; John 14:18–24