“To pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). That’s the ministry of Jeremiah, announced here at the beginning of the book. The society is corrupt. Citizens live by injustice. The people are in chaos. We get a glimpse at what’s happening on the ground from our reading in chapter 7—where Jeremiah stands on the busiest street corner in the capital city, and confronts the people with their sin, their injustice: “you steal, murder, commit adultery, make offerings to false gods,” he shouts to whoever would listen. He is outraged because his people oppress foreigners and neglect orphans and widows. They shed the blood of others, because of their greed, because of their desire for revenge, their insatiable resentments. (7:6, 9)
Prophets are poets. Words pound in their hearts, phrases light a fire in their bellies. They see the sins of the world, and want to change everything, but all they have are words, speeches like poems. Jeremiah turns his body into a kind of poem in a series of symbolic acts throughout the book. He wears costumes. He visits a potter’s house and smashes pots. He makes a yoke, like for oxen, to pull a plow, but puts it around his own neck and then schedules meetings with kings, to appear before them as if he’s a farm animal, a beast of burden.
Prophecies as performance art—Jeremiah the prophet as a spoken word artist, commissioned by God with that short poem we heard at the beginning of the book, in the first chapter of Jeremiah: “To pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Some things need to go away, to be destroyed and overthrown, for the people to experience God’s justice. Some things in this world get in the way of God’s love. And those things in the world that get in the way of God’s love sometimes they get inside of us, infect us, colonize us, making us complicit in sin. That’s what needs to be plucked out and pulled down, God says to Jeremiah—the injustices plucked out of our lives, the sins pulled down from places of authority.
We know all of these all to well. We know what we do, and what we don’t do that we should. We know what needs to change in this world, and we’re doing what we can to make those changes happen. “Amend your ways and your doings,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah in chapter 7—“Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (7:3).
Our faith is a way of life. Worship is a way of life. To amend our ways, Jeremiah says, has everything to do with how we welcome God into our lives. “Let me dwell with you in this place,” God says. It’s a request, a plea from God—because God wants to be with us. But the thing with God is that when God shows up, God brings friends, people, neighbors and foreigners, all God’s loved ones. If we don’t welcome the foreigner and orphan, then we’ve communicated very clearly that we don’t really want God.
We can’t separate our belief in God from our lives of justice toward our neighbors. We can’t separate our love of God from our love for God’s children. Our lives are our confession of faith. We write statements of belief with our bodies, with our actions, with our love for one another. We worship God with our daily ethics. “Amend your ways and your doings,” God says, “and let me dwell with you in this place.”
That’s part of why our church is involved in the sanctuary movement, a network of churches here in North Carolina and across the country where we offer hospitality to undocumented residents of our communities people who need protection from the immigration police. There are around 40 congregations offering sanctuary in the United States. There were five people here in NC, including Rosa here in this church, but now there are only four people, as of Friday.
As many of you already know, ICE coordinated the capture of Samuel Oliver-Bruno at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services appointment in Morrisville, near the airport. They lured him away from his sanctuary at a United Methodist Church in Durham. Samuel showed up Friday morning at the immigration office with his family—his wife and son, and his church family, all the people who have become his family over the past year while he has been living at City Well United Methodist Church. Samuel showed up for what they said would be a routine appointment at the immigration office, but ICE agents were waiting in a back room for him. The regional director of ICE was even there. He had traveled all the way from his office in Charlotte to be there for this high profile capture. He wouldn’t miss it. Robert Alfieri is his name. I know it because his name is written on an official piece of paper that says I’m charged with unlawfully and willfully resisting, delaying, and obstructing him as he conducted his arrest of Samuel. Twenty-seven of us were given the same piece of paper, with the same charges.
“If you do not oppress the foreigner,” God says in Jeremiah, “then I will dwell with you in this place” (7:6-7). Our faith won’t let us separate the status of Samuel and our relationship with God.
There’s so much in our world that needs to be plucked out and pulled down, to destroyed and to overthrown, as God says to Jeremiah. I felt all of that in my sore wrists and back in the holding cell in the Wake County jail on Friday, as I looked through my plexiglas window, across the hallway, at Samuel—he was being held in the same facility as the rest of us who got arrested, as the sheriff’s department worked out Samuel’s transfer to a detention center in Georgia. But there we were, looking across at one another, and I wished God would pull down the cinder block walls, to restore Samuel to his loved ones outside.
The poem in the first chapter of Jeremiah starts with God’s call for a leveling, a deconstruction of this world, but it ends with a call to build and plant. “To pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
To build and plant. There is so much hope in those words, an invitation to hope—not just to hope as something we do in our minds, with our thoughts, but hope made flesh: to build it with our arms, to plant it with our hands.
That’s what we do, here; that’s what it means to be the church. We build a community for each other, we plant seeds of care for our neighbors, we remake the world with our love—and that’s how we welcome God, that’s how we invite God to dwell with us, the one who formed us and knows us, as we heard in Jeremiah, the one who wants to fill us with grace and transform us with mercy.
“I have put my words in your mouth,” God says in Jeremiah—words of restoration, words of renewal, prophetic poems that we perform in our communal acts of hospitality, our loving-kindness.
That’s our prophetic work—to plant seeds of life. That’s what we do here, day by day, the work of hope, as we prophesy another world built in the rubble of this one, a world for all of us, a world for Samuel.