Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry coincided with the capture of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian military power, and the ultimate destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE. The destruction of the Temple was a devastating blow to the Israelite nation; once their temple was gone, where would God dwell? Could they be certain that God even dwelt among them anymore? Or had God abandoned them completely and gone back to the far-away mountain top in the wilderness?
Perhaps Jeremiah knew what was coming before it occurred, that the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. And perhaps that’s why Jeremiah made a point to tell the people that it wasn’t the Temple that was God’s only and truest dwelling place. They didn’t need a temple to be certain that God was dwelling with them, because God promised to dwell among the people wherever and whenever they practiced justice towards one another.
But that was then and this is now. Remember when Jesus told his followers, “Wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, there I am, in the midst of you!” Christians are pretty certain that Christ dwells in our midst when we gather together in Christ’s name to worship and to pray. Our sanctuaries have become our temples. But what about the promise God made through Jeremiah? Does God dwell with us in our communities beyond the walls of the spaces we have designated as sacred?
Presbyterians have always been particularly good at practicing our faith in our communities where we live and work and worship. It has never been enough for us simply to gather as Presbyterians in our sacred sanctuaries and be content with eternal salvation. We have found it compelling to build schools and colleges and seminaries, to operate hospitals and orphanages, to run for political office and shape the policies of our government, to make sure our finances are socially and responsibly invested. It has never been enough for us simply to rest content in worship on Sunday morning. We are hard at work Monday through Saturday being engaged in the life and work of our community.
But God does not call us simply to be nice and care for those on the margins of our society – the oppressed, the immigrant, the foreigner. God calls us, in the words Jeremiah preached, “to truly act justly!” It is not enough simply for God’s people to strive to alleviate the effects of injustice. We are called to address the causes of injustice, and, where possible, to eliminate injustice altogether.
If we want to dwell where God dwells, if we want God to dwell in our midst, we have to do more than gather and pray and sing. We cannot be content to bring canned goods or make sandwiches for the hungry or give money for those suffering from hurricanes; these are good first impulses, and we should do all these things, don’t get me wrong! But they are not acts of justice; they are acts of charity. Charity is our responsibility, but it is not our calling. Justice is our calling. Becoming engaged with our community in order to transform it is our calling. Building a world in which people are not hungry or homeless or without medical care is our calling. Writing laws that extend basic civil rights to all people regardless of their origin or orientation or status is our calling. It is our calling not only as citizens of the world, but as people of faith, called to create a world where God dwells in the midst of us!
What does that mean for us, to truly act justly and to dwell where God dwells? It means we bring canned goods and make sandwiches for those who are hungry. And it means asking ourselves why, in a wealthy nation with an abundance of resources, there are people who are hungry in the first place. It means helping to rebuild those communities that are devastated by hurricanes. And it means asking why resort communities along the Carolina coast get assistance within hours while communities in Puerto Rico continue to struggle for months or years after the devastation. It means asking the hard questions about our community, our nation, and our behaviors. When we ask those difficult questions and take those difficult steps to change the structures of oppression and inequity, then we will be acting justly. And God has promised us: “If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, then I will dwell with you in this place.”