Jeremiah, Fredrick Douglass, and the Zoo

A sermon for Proper 24: Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

Before I get to my thoughts on Jeremiah, I’d like to share that Saturday a week ago was our granddaughter LG’s 5th birthday; I’m still not sure how that happened. All she wanted was to go to the Zoo. So, she, one friend, her brother D, her parents, Aunty L, Angie and I and our nephew, her uncle M, all went to the zoo. We were having a wonderful time. We saw all sorts of wonderful animals, some that are only out at night.

We had just finished seeing LG’s favorite, the Pandas when Angie realized her I-phone was missing. We logged into I-cloud with her ID, did the lost phone thing, and sure enough, we could see that the phone was still in the zoo. We blocked the phone, put a message on the screen that the phone is lost and to please call and used my phone number. Then our daughter, her husband and I went in search. We got disturbed when the phone seemed to be moving. We were challenged in deciding if we were moving toward the phone, or away from it. Then we started the alarm, which makes some obnoxious noise. After walking for a bit, seemingly making circles, on a whim I just called the phone and was surprised when someone answered, “Are you looking for a lost phone?” After some trouble with the alarm interrupting our call, the lady hung up and called me back. She told me who she was, and where she was, which, a bit to our surprise, given our directional confusion, was right around the corner. We got to the counter, I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m, Scott, the one looking for the lost phone.” The lady explained someone found it in the women’s bathroom and turned it in. She gave me the phone, I thanked her and wished her a blessed day, and we headed back to our crew.

The day came to an end when we were back at the Lions, where we were delighted to hear a roaring male Lion. He was so loud, our daughter thought he was wearing a microphone. You could understand how that roar could be heard across the African veldt. I was impressed with the Lion, everyone was impressed with the Lion, well everyone except Burt, he knew he didn’t want to meet the Lion.

Just two days before David Brooks wrote a column What Makes Us All Radically Equal. In it, he shares a bit of Fredrick Douglass’ story in which he held contrasting feelings about his experiences with white Americans as “moments of fury and harmony, despair and hope.” (Brooks). Drawing on David Blight’s biography he shared Douglass’ contrasting statements

I have no love for America, as such, and

I am an American citizen. In birth, in sentiment, in ideas, in hopes, in aspirations and responsibilities.

Brooks notes Douglass could withstand all the ups and downs, all the ambivalences, because of an unchanging underlying belief: in the natural rights of all humankind.

He continues that what sustains Douglass, and others,

is the belief that all people of all races have a piece of themselves that has no size, weight, color or shape, but which gives them infinite value and dignity.

They and all humans have souls (Brooks).

You might be wondering what the Zoo and Douglas have to do with Jeremiah.

We have been reading from Jeremiah since August 25th. It sounds like an endless prediction of destruction:

  • My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13).
  • Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you (Jeremiah 18:11)
  • For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation (Jeremiah 4: 27 a)
  • My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? (Jeremiah 8:18, 22a).

All this doom and gloom is because of Israel’s failure to follow God’s the Law, as revealed in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; that is seen in their failure to uphold social justice for widows, orphans, immigrants, and anyone else lacking social protection (Brueggemann 15-16). In short, they failed to treat everyone as if they had a soul, and it leads to the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

However, in the last few weeks, the readings tell

  • of Jeremiah buying a piece of family land in Anathoth, his hometown, that he is likely to never see. It is an act revealing trust in the future.
  • We hear God tell them that when they go into exile they are to build houses and plant gardens, to have children and give their children in marriage; they are to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
  • And this morning we heard that just as God watched over a time of plucking up and tearing down, God will also watch over a time to build and to plant, promising fertility to both Judah and Israel (Jeremiah 31:27-28), which was destroyed some 150 years ago (Mast). The time is coming when “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33b).

It seems that even though God will not be mocked, by the people’s self-indulgent behaviors, presented as the true faith, neither will God quit; there is hope (Brueggemann 32). It seems that there is something in all of us, that God will not give up on; and if God won’t then neither should we. And here we touch the Zoo story.

When we realized Angie’s phone was missing, my daughter, her husband and I set out to find it. When we saw, on the Find My Phone app, that it was moving, I could the sense that we, at least I, thought it had been stolen. Our pace picked up so we could get to the phone before it left the Zoo. There was an assumption about the quality of the person with Angie’s phone, and that assumption determined the feeling of our search. So, while I was impressed by the lion’s roar, I was actually more impressed by the phone experience. It reminded me that there are good people in the world; actually, that most people in the world are good. In our uninhibited determination to find an I-phone we, at least I, had forgotten that the person we sought has a soul. The lady who found the phone has a soul. The lady who held the phone for us has a soul. This is easy to remember, as we experienced the goodness that comes from a human soul.

But, if the person who found the phone had less noble, more self-interest intentions, the same is true, they have a soul. And this means is that had we approached them; we should have done so based primarily on the truth that they have a soul. Were we all to begin every person to person interaction from the divine truth, that the other has a soul, it would make a difference. Were we to begin every person to person interaction believing that the other has a soul I believe Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson would be alive; and that Amber Guyger’s and Aaron Dean’s futures would be very different.

Notice I said, “Were we all to begin every action from the divine truth, that the other has a soul…” These tragedies are as much grounded in our social failure to recognize that everyone is made in the image of God, is a reflection of God, has a God-given soul, as it is in any individual’s failure, including mine ~ at the zoo.

I am thankful for our fun day at the zoo; I am thankful for finding Angie’s phone; I am thankful for experiencing the lion’s mighty roar, and I am thankful for the good time we enjoyed as a family. But mostly I am thankful to have been reminded that everyone has a soul and every interaction we have with anyone begins here. And drawing from Jeremiah I have a renewed hope, that even when we fail to act this way, God will never give up on us, as individuals, or as a nation.


Brooks, David. What Makes Us All Radically Equal. 10 10 2019. <;.

Brueggemann, Walter. From Judgement to Hope. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 20 10 2019. <;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Mast, Stan. Jeremiah 31:27-34. 20 10 2019. <;.

Mayfield, Tyler. “Commentary on Jeremiah 31:27-34.” 20 10 2019. <;.

Miller, Patrick D. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book ofThe Book of Jeremiah. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols. Olive Tree.

Taylor, Jemonde. “Returning to Pray, Proper 24 (C) – 2016.” 20 10 2019. Sermons that Work.