Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 NRSV
I often think of Rev. David Brooks. He was the first pastor who suggested that God may be calling me to be a pastor. I had the opportunity to serve with him as the youth director of a church during the summer of 1986.
I will never forget the day that he called me into his office and shut the door behind me. I thought I was in some kind of trouble. For this was the first time I had ever served on church staff, and I wasn’t too sure I knew what I was doing.
Well, I soon found out that I was in trouble, albeit a different kind of trouble. For he asked me: “Jarrett, have you ever considered that God may be calling you to be a pastor?”
“Me a pastor? No way I will ever be a pastor!” I said.” He then went on to point out the pastoral gifts that he saw in me and to encourage me to prayerfully consider that God may be calling me to pastor a church. Out of respect for him, I told him I would.
Well, five years later, as I was getting ready to graduate from seminary to be a pastor, I was sad to hear that Rev. Brooks had passed away.
I think about him often today. For, as we are studying on Wednesday nights, the church and the culture has changed so much since that day he called me into his office, and I think of how shocked he would be if he could witness what we are experiencing today.
I must confess that I also wonder if he would still believe I possessed the necessary gifts to pastor a church. Because the truth is, although I now have over 30 years of experience serving with churches since that day I was called into his office, I still have moments, especially here in 2019, when I am not too sure I know what I am doing.
In the 1980’s, if a pastor loved the members of their church, if a pastor showed up on Sunday morning with a sermon (it didn’t have to be an awe-inspiring or even a good sermon, just a sermon that was based on scripture and had an appearance that the pastor had put a little work into it), then the church pews on Sunday morning would be full of people to hear the sermon.
Parents with young children came without hesitation, although the only children’s program consisted of a nursery and a simple Sunday School lesson. Young adults even found the music meaningful, that consisted only of a small choir, organ and piano.
Today, the only churches that seem to be full of people are expected to have elaborate children’s centers that rivals some amusement parks, a Chuck-E-Cheese or a Playland at McDonalds. The music must be on par with the music that entertains us at concerts. There’s disappointment if there is an absence of video screens, smoke machines and concert lights. The pastor needs to wow us with their charisma, and just make us feel really, really good.
He also never experienced 9-11 and the rise of religious fundamentalism that came out of it. He never witnessed the election of the first black President, and as a response, the resurgence of the religious right and the rise Christian white nationalism. He never witnessed the anti-Christ spirit that is in our nation today: the greed, the vulgarity, the selfishness, the fear of the other, and the further marginalization of those who are different. And he never knew that many churches today would support, even seem to worship these anti-Christ sentiments.
And Rev. Brooks died before some people started walking away from the church for good. He knew that many churches in Europe were in delcine, but he never saw it here. He could not ever imagine that an entire generation of young adults would reject the church.
From the vantage point of 1986, it is like we are living in a strange, foreign land, in a completely different world. Churches that were once the insiders of society are now the outsiders. And many of us in churches like ours today are afraid, and we are not too sure if we know what we are doing.
This is exactly where the Israelites find themselves in today’s Hebrew lesson. They have just been exiled into Babylon, finding themselves in a foreign land. .
It is into this strange and fearful reality, that the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter of hope.
Jeremiah writes that they can find their hope in the willingness and the courage to let go of their past.
Jeremiah insists that the people who have found themselves in a foreign land must surrender its old identity and accept its new situation not only to survive, but to eventually flourish.
He encourages them to begin working towards building a new way of life. They needed to accept that Babylon was where God has planted them and where God wants to work through them.
When Jeremiah says, “Pray to the Lord on their behalf,” the prophet is affirming the truth that God can be found even in this strange and foreign land. God has never left them. God is still working among them and wants to use them to make their new world a more just and peaceful place to live.
Jeremiah wants them to know God is present everywhere, even at the margins, even among the broken, the dejected, the afraid, and the subjugated, in other words, even among outsiders like them.
Jeremiah assures them that they can call on the Lord even without the temple, and the Lord will answer.
Having been conquered, humiliated and deported by military force, the exiles are embittered and vengeful. And Jeremiah writes: “Seek the welfare of the [foreign] land to which God has banished you.” In other words, “Seek the well-being of the land of your enemies. For their well-being is also you well-being. Their peace is also your peace. Pray for their land.” This is an illustration of the social and political significance of praying for and loving one’s enemies.
Jeremiah encourages them to accept their situation in exile, but not to regard it as hopeless or unchangeable. As he mentions in a later verse, we have the promise from God: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
I believe Jeremiah’s letter has much to say to churches in 2019 who find themselves in a foreign land.
Churches today who find themselves living in a foreign land respond respond in several unhealthy ways.
The most popular response is to just give up and walk away, to give in to defeat and scarcity, to succumb to the lie that God is no longer present, no longer working in the land, that God no longer has anything for us to do, that church today is just a waste of time.
Another popular response is to just be in denial about it all and to just ignore it. “Yes, the world may be different, but we really don’t need to do anything differently to live in this new reality. So we just need to keep doing the same things that we have always done.”
Another response is to adopt a defensive, self-protective posture. Paralyzed by fear, having no idea what to do, we retreat into our safe sanctuaries to comfort one another while loathing our enemies, for those we blame for this new reality.
Another response is to join the new culture. “People crave entertainment? We will give it to them. People want to feel good about themselves today? Let’s make that happen. The culture has embraced an “us vs. them” mentality? Our leaders resort to name-calling and bullying and work to further disenfranchise the other? To survive in this new world, we will join them and do the same thing. Everyone around us has forgotten that the greatest of God’s commandments is to love our neighbors as ourselves? Well, we’ll just forget that too. To survive in this new culture, we will simply blend in with the new culture.”
I believe Jeremiah’s prophetic words call churches today to respond in a better way.
The prophet reminds us that God is still here, and God is still working in this world. And God still wants to work through us. And God still has a lot of work for us to do!
And God is specifically pressing us to move away from the private walls of the church and into the world, into the public space, to do what we can to fulfill our calling as people of faith to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly.
And because churches that embrace love, kindness and humility now find themselves living in a world of hate, meanness and greed, because churches that embrace the inclusive, counter-cultural way of Christ, are now the outsiders, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized of society, I believe we are to especially go out and address the needs of others who have been disenfranchised and marginalized, all those who suffer from political, social and cultural insecurity and discrimination.
For one thing that our faith teaches us is that God is always most discernible and most present in the margins. Jesus called his disciples to leave their old lives, their old worlds behind, to drop their nets, to journey out to the fringes of society to experience God in new ways and in new forms.
So, what does God want us to do in this foreign land? What do we do when we are not sure what to do?
We need to first make sure that our theology is not a private theology, but that it is a very public theology. It is one that presses us to pray for the welfare, not for our church, but for our city and nation.
It pushes us to commit to work for shalom, for peace, for well-being, for healing, for wholeness, and for justice, not just for the members of our church who feel like they are now living on the margins of society, but for those who have always lived on the margins, for those who have always felt like outsiders…
…while remembering the great promise of God: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Let us pray together
O God, in this strange time and place, help us to be strong and courageous as we share the good news of gospel out to the margins of society. Knowing that you are with us and with you is our hope and our future.