Sermon for Third Presbyterian Church October 31, 2021 (Stewardship to the City)
Jeremiah 29:1-7 (NRSV)
Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles in Babylon
29 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. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 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’s letter to the exiles is not the kind of letter I would want to receive. I would want the letter to include battle plans or escape instructions or some sort of hope that I could return home. In fact, Jeremiah’s letter warns against believing such things that some false prophets might say. This had to be a difficult letter to read especially if you were already full of false hope from these false prophets. Jeremiah is telling the exiles to expect to be in exile for at least a few generations. Exile is certainly not how anyone would want to live but the letter from Jeremiah seems to indicate that the small silver lining is that this time of exile will also be a time of survival. A time where they can build homes and plant gardens and eat what they harvest from those gardens. They will get married, have children, and see those children get married. It will be difficult and certainly far from ideal, but they will survive and maybe even experience moments of peace and joy. And if a long exile wasn’t hard enough to swallow, Jeremiah adds that they should seek the welfare of the city and pray for those who are holding them in exile. And remember your welfare is tied to the welfare of this city. You live here now.
We aren’t living in exile. But we do have to deal with our reality and what God might be asking of us here and now. And our reality is that we are going to be living with Covid, safety protocols, and this weird hybrid version of church for a long time. Last week, Kyle talked about becoming friends with one another within our congregation. Living into the kind of relationships that allow us to be vulnerable with one another, to be generous with the time and attention we give to one another, to foster strong connections and deep friendships. Church isn’t this building we sit in once a week or worship we watch on a screen; church is the community of believers living out our faith together. The purpose of building a close community is do God’s work together for the welfare of our city.
We are called to work for the welfare of our city by joining others already working in our city. We don’t have to set up our own homeless shelter or soup kitchen, or tutoring program, or any other support our community needs. But we do have to be out in the community meeting people already doing those things so that we can come along beside them. Like volunteering at Global Links yesterday. We will have the opportunity to do that with the east end interfaith thanksgiving service. This year, we are restructuring the event a little. Instead of hearing from faith leaders, we will be hearing from local nonprofit organizations that were recommended by someone in the interfaith group. These are organizations that we can volunteer our time with or send monetary support to. Most importantly, for Rabbi Goodman and I, we want to display the ways in which we can do holy work together. There will be opportunities for us to learn and to volunteer with groups our neighbors have suggested like the PGH Equality Center and Hello Neighbor, as well as to invite our neighbors to join us in our work with Days for Girls, Literacy Pittsburgh and hopefully a few other groups which we already support.
We can join our neighbors no matter how different our faith traditions may be to work for the welfare of our city. We can join our neighbors no matter how different our political affiliations may be to work for the welfare of our city. We can join our neighbors no matter how different our skin colors may be to work for the welfare of our city.
This work that God is calling us to do with our neighbors is easier than what was asked of the exiles in Babylon because we are not living among our enemies. Especially at the interfaith thanksgiving service we will be among people who are our friends, or those who are hoping to be our friends, and even some who may call us family. There is love and goodness and peace in our city. We only need to follow God’s call to join our neighbors to work for the welfare of this place we all call home.
In this weird pandemic time, I think we are being called to co-create a new Third Church, a new East End Interfaith Community, and a new Pittsburgh. None of us expected to have to survive a time like this, but here we are in survival mode.
Occasionally, we are finding peace and joy even during these chaotic times. And I think that God is calling us to not merely survive and be passive recipients of what comes our way, but to join God and our neighbors in cocreating whatever it is that is coming next.
I want to read a little of what God said was coming next for the exiles. Jeremiah 29: 7-14 (NRSV)
7 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. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
You may have noticed the familiar memory verse in this section, Jeremiah 29:11 “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” I’ve heard this verse out of context so many times that it feels unfamiliar in context. I used to think this was meant for an individual, but now I see it is meant for all of God’s people as a collective. And I believe that we are part of that collective people of God as Third Church, as the East End Interfaith Community, and as the city of Pittsburgh. We can count on a future with hope even if we aren’t here to see a final resolution and restoration of the reign of God.
When we pray God hears us. When we search for God, we find God in our neighbors who we work alongside. And in the coming kin-dom of God, I believe all of God’s people will be gathered together and restored to right relationship with one another and with God. And until the last day, we are called to co-create this kin-dom here and now, right where we live and with our neighbors, for the welfare of the whole city.
It’s not lost on me that I’m preaching a sermon about working for the welfare of our city by joining in with those already doing the work on Reformation Sunday, a Sunday that would normally mark the breaking away of part of the western church that would later splinter again and again and again. For the church of 1517, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were meant to be a reform or what we would now call something like church transition and revitalization. Eventually, in 1521 he (and those who agreed with him) were labeled heretics. We call the church he created Lutheran. Later, other groups would continue to splinter off, one of which we call Presbyterian.
So, in the spirit of Reformation Sunday, I’m going to name what we can work on.
This institution we call church is failing and dying in general. We are also feeling it on an individual church level, mostly due to the pandemic speeding up church decline and giving us all the opportunity to reevaluate a lot of our lives. We all know this, the institutional church must evolve or die. We (Christians generally) are holding up practices, traditions, and institutions that no longer serve God or the welfare of our neighbors. There isn’t much we can do about the big picture church if we aren’t first willing to reevaluate the way that we live as individuals and how we live as Third Church. Some of our practices and traditions need to die with dignity. We can honor those things and mourn their loss, but then we must make ourselves ready for what new thing God is doing. Revitalization is not resuscitation. Revitalization is not reinvention either. Revitalization is more like reformation, allowing God to reorder our lives. Revitalization is like the returning of the Holy Spirit, the animating breath of God that can enliven and enrich our lives, the force that moves us to do God’s will for the welfare of our city. This is Holy Spirit work, and if we want to participate in this work, we need to listen. We need to listen to what God is saying to us in our prayer and spiritual practices and we need to listen to each other to discern what God is calling us to do as Third Church. Kyle is right that we need to be friends. We need to know each other on a human level and on a spiritual level. But, small talk isn’t going to cut it. We need to be ready to ask and answer spiritual questions. Not simply, how are you, but how is it with your soul? Not only, what did you do this week, but what did you see God doing this week? Not, what do you do for a living, but child of God, what do you do to live? We should have those conversations with our close friends, as one body of Third Church, and with those who are already doing God’s work in our city.
When we pray God hears us. When we listen in our prayer, we might hear God.
When we search for God, when we look for what God is doing in our lives, when we ask our friends what God is doing in their lives, we will find God in our friends, our church, and our neighbors.
When we reform our lives to live in the kin-dom of God, we will find that we are co-creators of that kin-dom.
God wants to work through and with each of us and all of us. For our welfare, for the welfare of our neighbors, and for the welfare of the world.
Benediction from Frederick Buechner’s “Telling Secrets”: Go where your best prayers take you. Unclench the fist of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep of the glad air and live one day at a time. Know you are precious. Know that you can trust God.