The Right to Love the Land
Neddy Astudillo

This sermon was preached in the rural town of Marengo, Illinois, to an Anglo Presbyterian congregation that had just recently begun the process of opening their doors to the Latino people in their community. The goal of the sermon was to allow all people to see their commonalities and bring divine purpose to the experience of being a migrant or of working with migrants.

From Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads. Continuum Press, 1-7.

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom

Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jaconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gamariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find you welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:1-7)

 During my first years in seminary, I had the opportunity to read a book called “Becoming  Native to This Place.” Being a migrant myself and struggling to find my identity in a new land, it had not dawned on me until then that you could be from a place and still be disconnected from it. After reading that book, I realized that the struggle to live in intentional relationship with the place that feeds you and gives you identity was as universal as local.

It was also in those first years in seminary that I heard the theologian Jay McDaniel say, that Justice (a very passionate issue for us minorities) meant “faithfulness to relationships.” I went to seminary seeking to understand the concept of ecological justice. As I tried to translate this concept among Latinos and church people, I realized that I needed to embrace the tension between our environmental responsibility and the social structures that move us away from that same environment.

As I tried to work for eco-justice in a new land (I am a native of Venezuela) I realized I needed to open my heart to the ecology and the souls of this place. As I reflected upon my need to be just with the new environment, I realized how my heart was still tied to the natural landscape of my homeland—to the point of not allowing me to be present in fullness to the new land and to my responsibility in it. In this journey to become native to a new place—while keeping my foreign branches—I have met many other migrants who, in spite of their settled life in the United States, still mourn the disconnection with the land. This distance is experienced as an inevitable and overpowering byproduct of a life in exile, especially when legal issues shadow their sense of identity and belonging.

As the church seeks to minister to and from the experience of the migrant, and as the church seeks to create just relationships with its natural environment, the issues of belonging and the right to love the land need to be addressed as well. I recently heard the Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez say that, “to do theology is to find the Good News—the Gospel—in any human situation”.

What is the Good News found in the experience of exile and migration today? We have thousands of migrant farmers coming inside our borders each year who never touch the soil again. We have a land that mourns mistreatment, species in danger due to increasing population, and a consumerist life style that threatens the future of the planet. What then is the Good News? What then is our calling?

To reflect upon our reality at hand, I wanted us to look into the life of Jeremiah and the Israelites in exile. The passage in Jeremiah sprouts from the life of a community needing to feel native to a place, and points to a loving God who seeks to restore the life of the people in exile.

Build homes and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters . . . . But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29: 5-9)

Jeremiah is speaking to the Israelites now living in Babylon, who had been sent into exile by God and who had been taken away at the hands of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. This group of exiles, as described in the passage, was represented by the middle and upper classes of Israel. The poor of the land, the farmers, the lame and the sick had stayed behind, very probably now working for the new land owners. Hence, the message to build houses and to plant gardens seems to have been given to a group of elite people, now in Babylon, who had perhaps never before had to build houses or plant gardens for themselves or who had had someone else do these things for them. Jeremiah sends a pastoral message to the theses new landless Israelites, migrants in a foreign land.

I believe that in Jeremiah’s instruction, God was calling God’s people back to the Land—not the geographical land of their parents, but the home-land of their hearts—and to the most human basic vocation and relationship that identified them as keepers and tillers of the land. In Jeremiah’s instructions, we hear echoes of the most basic and primary aspect of Israelite faith: “to be fruitful and multiply” and “to till it and keep the land” (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). These instructions had been given not only to them but to all humanity and all creatures from the beginning of time. The experience of migration or exile, then, forces people to find again that which is universal in their faith. It challenges us to translate our identity beyond that which is finite and local (such as the attachment to the land). Ultimately, it challenges us to open our hearts to the new place and its people.

Those who plant gardens or trees in their homes know the relationship that comes to birth with every seed that is put in the ground, with every effort given to water the plant, and with the patience to await the first fruits. When we care and pray for the land, we begin to feel it as our own; we begin to love it and suffer its pains and seek to create just relationship with its inhabitants.

In God’s instructions through the prophet Jeremiah, God gives the migrant Israel the opportunity to go back to the Garden of Eden. God invites them to live as if they are in the Kingdom (of God). God renews their calling to represent God’s ways among the other nations, seeking the Shalom of the land. If “exile” was the will of God for Israel, it is clear to me that “feeling” like an exile, or living like one, was not God’s ultimate plan for Israel.

Can today’s migrants be convinced of the same calling? Can Jeremiah’s message be translated to our experience of migration, or disconnection from the land? I certainly hope so.

As in the past, we need to find today’s Good News behind the experience of migration and our disconnection to the land. I cannot be bold enough to say why there are so many migrants in the world today (according to the United Nations, 32 million migrants live in the United States alone), but I can say that in our faith we do have enough tools and instructions so as to know what to do about it and how to understand it in God’s terms. In God, it becomes a right and a responsibility to create loving relationships with the land that feeds and covers us.

For migrants, this calling has a redeeming and healing effect: “I can now begin to love again! I can now relate and live my spirituality in this place!”

For the land itself and all its living creatures, it holds the promise that new lovers will arrive and that new opportunities to be cared for may develop.

For the people of the land, it brings an opportunity to give back a part of what has been received, an opportunity to be generous, and a chance to stay related with the larger world. It can also be an opportunity to nurture old and new ways of living that are more sustainable and that are sensitive to other cultures and future generations.

The right to relate and love the land has great spiritual, social, environmental, and political consequences.

If we look at Jesus’ life from a migrant perspective, we realize that good things come with being a migrant. Christ himself chose to live as a migrant when He came from heaven to live among us. Christ chose to become a migrant when He lived as the Son of Man: “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). And Jesus called his disciples to leave everything they had, to follow him. Jesus called his disciples to put their hearts in the things of the Kingdom, the universal, that which could be carried in a small bag, and in their hearts.

In the Old Testament we hear God saying to the Hebrews before entering into the Promised Land: “The land should not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, with you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:26). Like Israel before us, we too have the weakness of putting too much of our trust and heart in our nationalities, languages, ownership of the land, or the memories of our native landscapes.

Behind these passages, there is a real calling to place our trust and identity in God. Finding ourselves as migrants in this way, finding ourselves as landless people with an ancient purpose, can become a very good thing. Being a spiritual sojourner, or a moral migrant in a world that is not Christ’ world, can only but enable us to understand what it means to “follow Jesus”.

When we seek the Realm of God, we realize that we are not home yet. When the earth needs healing and our bodies ache, we realize we are not home yet. When we lose our sense of security, we realize we are not home yet. When we struggle to restore our Imago Dei and our vocation, we realize we are not home yet. When there is no peace in the world, as children of God, we know that we are not home yet.

When we follow Jesus’ steps in a world that has not reached God’s ultimate Shalom, we become migrants. When we embark on a journey with Abraham, to an unknown promised land, filled with people from different nations, we become migrants. When we find that on the road we can also find Jesus, we live the experience of the migrants. When we accept the risk of hosting the millions of Maries and Josephs that cross borders each day to protect their children, we become migrants ourselves.

When we follow Christ we journey with his disciples. We journey with the pilgrims who came to this country to seek freedom to worship. We journey with the Native Americans who found their communal lands sealed off by private spirits. We journey with the buffaloes, the bears, the wolves, the eagles, and other endangered species who see their numbers fall with the arrival of human kind.

In the commitment to our neighbors and to the land, we not only become native to a place, but embark on a divine journey that ends only in the Kingdom of God. When we love and pray for the Shalom of the land that feeds us, we allow for God’s grace to be poured out throughout the world, healing and bringing abundant life, redeeming our sorrows, and filling our lives with ancient purpose.

The right to love the land and all its creatures, the right to give thanks and partake of the fruits of the harvest, was given by God, to all the people and creatures of the earth. May God bless, then, our rooted migration. 

A native of Venezuela, Neddy Astudillo has an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary in a program focused on Eco-Justice Ministry. An ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church USA, she has been working and living in Northern Illinois linking environmental issues to the role of the Church in the world. Through her volunteer work at the Community Supported Agriculture Learning Center and the work among Latinos in the church, she has opened opportunities for Latinos to reconnect with the land, learn about sustainable agriculture, and strengthen their native holistic spiritualities. In 2004, Neddy received a Fellowship from the National Council of Churches of Christ USA for her involvement in Eco-Justice ministry. She hopes to continue being a resource person for the migrant community in the United States and her native country, Venezuela.