“You Belong Here” by Elaine James
My family recently joined a gym. Not a New Year’s resolution, but a step we’d been meaning to take for some time and just hadn’t gotten around to it. The gym we joined is the Jewish Community Center, not far from our house in Highland. And I love going there.
And not just for the free hot cocoa, though I will be the first to admit that’s a plus.
Lately, I am struck by the signs everywhere around the building that say: “You belong here.” It’s even on the pillows in the entry-way: They are bright red, and you can’t miss their bold lettering when you walk in the door: “You belong here.” You belong here. Me? I think. Do I? I try on the idea. “I belong here.” What does that mean, for a Christian at the JCC? For a transplant to Minnesota in a state that specializes in home-town pride? For a non-athlete at the gym? “You belong here.” Not you are welcome in our space, but you belong here.
Jeremiah, the prophet we heard from today, is writing from Jerusalem, a city full of rubble, after it’s been sieged by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE. The city is in ruins, its temple is about to be destroyed, and all the important people have been exiled to Babylon: leaders, priests, wealthy landowners. The only folks left behind are the rural poor, and people like Jeremiah: an unpopular, unsuccessful artist, a poet with no social capital.
But in the midst of despair, Jeremiah keeps writing. He does not listen to the voice of failure, either his personal failure as a poet and a prophet, or to the grander failure of Judah to resist Babylon’s military incursion.
He writes because he sees a future: A future in which those who had been exiled are able to return home, a future in which Jerusalem is rebuilt, a future that says: “You belong here.”
But he does not write only with hope. He is a prophet, after all, and prophets bear the heavy burden of telling the difficult truth. He also writes these excoriating words against the political and military leaders of his day: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the Lord.” The shepherd is a common ancient metaphor for leaders (remember, David was a shepherd and then he was king!) And there is a persistent thread throughout the Old Testament: God requires that the community be ruled with justice and righteousness. How will we know justice and righteousness in society? We will know justice and righteousness by whether the alien, the orphan, and the widow, are being cared for. “The least and the lost,” as our priest Jered might put it.
According to Jeremiah, the rulers who should have been responsible for leading the community with justice and righteousness had instead been seeking their own fortunes; they had been enriching their own coffers at the expense of the poor; they had been trampling on women, children, and the most needy in society. They had not been good shepherds. Jeremiah goes on: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.”
But Jeremiah’s message does not end with woe. He takes a remarkable turn toward hope in what was, historically, Israel’s darkest, most vulnerable hour. He gives us the God’s eye view: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” I myself will gather them. God looks at his people, like a flock of sheep scattered among their enemies in a foreign land, and says: Their shepherds have failed them. So: I myself will be their shepherd.
This is a beautiful and pacific image of God. Last week, we heard a message from the prophet Amos, that God roars like a lion. This fierce roar for justice is a sound that should terrify—as certainly as a lion terrifies sheep. But here, in Jeremiah, God is imagined not as a lion, but as a shepherd, the one who cares for sheep.
The divine shepherd, God who rules God’s flock with tenderness, is an image that is known to us from the familiar 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. And we see it echoed in the Gospel passage for this morning: As Jesus is traveling the countryside, healing and teaching, he is followed by a great crowd of people who are desperate for the hope he offers. Jesus is weary from traveling, and from the crowds, so much so that he seeks out a deserted place, where he can rest, catch his breath, have a bite to eat. But the crowds are relentless. He is recognized and followed, like a star swamped by paparazzi. Jesus might have gotten angry here, but the Gospel writer describes Jesus’ response in this way: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
The gospel writer connects Jesus with this shepherding God. And the gospel writer connects us, the crowd who wants to get a little closer to Jesus, to touch even the fringe of his cloak, who just wants to be healed…. well, we are sheep.
Now, being compared to sheep is not particularly flattering. There is a reason there is no Triple- crown, or Westminster Dog Show, for sheep. We don’t crowd around and wear fancy hats to watch sheep in their majesty, nor do we marvel at their intelligence. Sheep are skittish, prone to herd-mentality (of course), and have very little defense against the very real predators of this world. A lost sheep will not survive. A sheep needs a fold, a flock, and a shepherd. A sheep needs to belong.
Jeremiah draws this metaphor out: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” And he goes on: “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” Jeremiah imagines that with God as their shepherd, the exiles will be returned to life in community. And more than this, God will replace their corrupt rulers with rulers who will promote justice and righteousness.
In these troubled times, we have lots of reason and opportunity to critique our “shepherds,” our governors who have power over many sheep. And Jeremiah gives us clear criteria by which to judge them: do our leaders promote the well-being of the alien, the orphan, and the widow? Certainly, the idea that God wants exiles to be given a place to belong has far-reaching implications today; some of these are national-level, and policy-level implications. I leave that for you to think about.
But, in light of our community’s sabbath summer of rest and reflection, I want to turn the question in an equally relevant direction: to our local community.
For some of us, the question will be: what will it take to believe, really, and powerfully, that you belong here? This itself is deep, spiritual work in an age of disconnection.
For others of us, who feel already enriched by a sense of belonging, how do we create that for others? That means asking ourselves, honestly: who are the alien, the orphan, and the widow in our immediate context? How do we serve God’s purposes of shepherding?
The great medieval theologian Teresa of Avila writes, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.”
God is our good shepherd, our comfort and our guide. Now we in turn must take up the shepherd’s crook. We are Christ’s hands, we are Christ’s body; there are countless ways that we are called to be Christ’s shepherding presence to a scattered flock. Perhaps, as a start, we can take a lesson from our Jewish neighbors, and learn to simply say: “You belong here.”