The following post was an address given on September 30th at the University of Ottawa at the launch of the Ottawa Christian Reformed Campus Chaplaincy.
“Build, Plant & Eat” – Jeremiah 29:1-14
Ottawa Chaplaincy Inauguration Address – Sid Ypma
September 30, 2012
On the other side of the Perez building we’re in, on Laurier, a sausage vendor sets up his grilled meat market every day. For those of you who may be vegetarian this merchant of meat might not grab your attention. But I confess that I am a carnivore and the very site of the gleaming silver mobile barbecue already makes my mouth water. And on the occasion that I pass by the sausage vendor during a lunch hour, the smells that engulf my nostril often make me resentful of the peanut butter sandwich I have waiting for me in my office. But imagine if that sausage vendor grilled his bratwursts, frankfurters and kielbasas, but never actually sold any of his product? He wouldn’t remain in that location, he’d go out of business. But then imagine if his mandate had been to give his sausages away for free to the faculty, staff and students, but instead of doing so he proudly grilled every day tempting everyone with the smell but kept it all to himself? Not only would those tempting smells be nothing more than cruel joke to starving students living on macaroni and cheese, but all that meat which came at the cost of an animal’s life would go to waste.
Now imagine the same scenario but we’re not talking about sausages, we’re talking about a vision for life and an understanding of how beauty and justice are best restored to a world where selfish ambition and personal experiential happiness often seem to rule the day. Would it be right for those who have been given (and I stress given so that we recognize that such a vision is a gift and not attained by personal piety or intellectual prowess)… Would it be right for those who have been given such a vision by a spirit other than their own to hold on to it as though it were a family heirloom that you store in a safety deposit box at the bank? We might want to answer no, but yet if one looks at the history of Christianity far too often, followers of Jesus can be accused of either holding on to the gift God has given with little interest in giving it away or they can be accused of forcing it down the throats of their neighbours so that it is not so much a gift but a poorly exhibited imposition whose message is lost in the medium of its delivery.
And all one need do is read the Bible, the very story that defines the gift of a vision of life that has already been described earlier by Mark Wallace, to see that our Biblical brothers and sisters had difficulty with God’s gift as well. Consider the people of the exile to whom the words of Jeremiah were written. As descendants of Abraham, the forefather of the world’s great monotheistic faiths, they had been given the gift of being God’s redeeming agents in a broken world. They had been called out to be a light and a blessing to ALL the nations. But time and time again they drifted into self-sufficient nationalistic tendencies in which status was more important than blessing their neighbours and giving witness to God’s WORLDview. They wanted to keep their sausages and spend too much time shining their cart. So God sends them into exile.
But this should not be understood simply as an act of divine punishment, as it so often is interpreted, but as a way of pushing his people into the places where they should have been in the first place. As God’s people were conquered by foreigners they were stripped of their power, wealth, homes…and identity. But which identity were they stripped of? They were stripped of national pride, religious arrogance and self-sufficient lifestyles. An outsider at the time would have said that it looked as though God’s people had lost and that their God was impotent. But what the world views as impotent, God viewed as restorative. What the world viewed as weakness leading to slavery, God viewed as humility leading to servitude. God’s vision of humanity in a good world did not and does not contain a clause that says his vision is carried out by power but rather that it is defined by weakness and servitude, defined later in the Biblical story by God himself through the incarnation; by Jesus. In exile, God was redefining this vision for his people. By pushing them outside the perceived centre of power in the Promised Land of Israel, he was reminding them of their true identity and role in the world.
Yale Professor, Miroslav Volf, in his book “A Public Faith” writes quite candidly about the desire of some Christians in the west who work tirelessly to obtain political power because they feel as though it is the way that they can somehow exert God’s influence upon the society at large and ensure that it remain or become a Christian society. But Volf rightly explores the historical reality of when Christians were and are the most influential, and questions whether or not it is when they are at the centre of political power. He says,
“Those familiar with the early history of the Christian church – and for careful observers of young and vibrant Christian communities in the non-Western world – there is something odd about the present sense of crisis in the West. The early Christian communities were not major social players at all! They were not even among the cheering or booing spectators…To be tucked in a dark corner outside the public view was not a sign of failure but of keeping good company.” [i]
In the course of history when Christianity has been at the centre of political power, so often it has lost its identity and failed to live out it’s calling to be a light in darkness and blessing the world. Some may mourn the loss of Christianity as the so-called centre of our current society, but perhaps in getting pushed to the margins…which is a societal label for who can or cannot say what is truly marginal… perhaps in getting pushed to the margins we are where we should be.
It was a lesson that God already taught the people of Jeremiah’s day who were living in exile. Once in this position, outside of political power, God gives them the message we heard:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:6&7)
The word used in this declaration translated as peace is not simply a call to put on a long flowing robe, grow your hair out and pass daises to those who pass you by. The word translated as “peace” is the Hebrew word “Shalom.” The word carries with it a connotation of something much more than the absence of war. The word shalom describes time, space and matter all coming together as Mike Goheen and Craig Bartholomew describe it, in a “rich, integrated, relational wholeness that God intends for his creation.”[ii] God tells his people that they should bring shalom to this marginal place of exile, to those considered to be enemies, to a world they have for so long ignored. “Seek the peace and prosperity not for yourselves, but for the city I have carried you to,” says God.
And so it is that we consider God’s words to His people in the exile as we begin a new Campus Chaplaincy in Ottawa. Now let’s be clear, we’re not saying that a life in Ottawa is the equivalent of exile. (Though if you hear the way people talk about politicians one might be inclined to think it is.) And we also would not claim that the University is in any way a marginal place within the western world. (Even if we hear people say that the academy is out of touch with reality.) But it can be said that the University does not have the Christian church as its power centre. And I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing for once again Christians find themselves in the margins. And it may be that this is where God wants us to be because instead of getting lost in power struggles, we can focus correctly on building, planting and eating with the community we are in. If God has given us a vision of how things are supposed to be, if God has given us a gift of shalom, especially as we know it in Jesus, then we must share it. Shalom is a man and a woman working side by side to eradicate poverty. Shalom is a professor and a student sharing a meal because they both have things to learn from each other. Shalom is a student from Nigeria and a student from Renfrew, Ontario discussing French poetry because each can offer a unique perspective. Shalom is a Muslim student and Christian student working together in a laboratory doing kidney research because kidney disease is blight on a good creation. Our faith compels us to work with others in these areas because God’s redemptive call is one of shalom. Through the power of Jesus we know that all things are possible and as we work for the good of the society we are in, the world we are in, day by day we will see what God is doing and trust that his vision will be embraced by those he calls.
So as we celebrate a new beginning in this place and at this time, we do so with the knowledge that all territory is God’s territory and there is nothing marginal about where we he has pushed us to be. Let us build our sausage stands, plant our grills on these campuses and share a meal with our neighbours in Ottawa. Let us eat together in this place, because God says,
“For I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Thanks be to God for the opportunities he gives. Amen.
[i] Miroslav Volf – “A Public Faith” – Brazos Press c. 2011
[ii] Mike Goheen and Craig Bartholomew – The Drama of Scripture – Baker Academic c.2004 – p.42