Sermon of the Week
Words to Build a Life On:
Seek the Welfare of the City.
This is a “get back to basics” sort of sermon series we’re doing.
We’re looking at the what and the why of our faith.
Faith is supposed to do a couple of things in our lives.
It is meant to help us make sense of existence
Of our lives
Of the world.
These are the moments you lie awake at night
Wondering: why am I here?
What is going on in the world?
Did God really design the kangaroo and the aardvark
Because, if so, we really need to talk, God
Something wacky was going on that day in your research and design department.
Oh, Am I the only one who lies awake at night with that one. Ok. Moving on then…
We’re trying to understand meaning:
Why is life a struggle?
What do I do with my pain, my guilt, my hurt?
Can anything be more beautiful than a sunrise,
or gazing into the eyes of one you love?
How can I be a good person, a true friend, a reliable and faithful partner?
Faith is supposed to give us a framework for all of these things.
And so we try to understand God
And a movement that is greater than ourselves
And a love that is deep and lasting and true and flows through all of existence,
And we begin to see purpose
Purpose for your life and for everything we do.
It is something we get up here, in our head
And down here, in our heart.
And that leads us to the second reason for faith
Faith isn’t just supposed to help us understand,
But it also shapes how we decide to live in the world.
The choices we make
And how we love
And what we do to care for one another and for ourselves.
So we’ve been looking at “words to build a life on”
Basic, foundational ideas of the Christian tradition
That boil down to a phrase
That can help us understand and see purpose and direction for our lives.
Words to Build a Life on.
Today’s sermon is a reflection on
A fascinating reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah
It deals with things like fear, and worry, and transition
With hope and possibility and the promises of God
To be with us when things aren’t working out like we wanted them to go.
It is a story about being in a new and different place.
I invite you now to hear the word of God
As it comes to us from Jeremiah:
4Thus says the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel,
to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
5Build houses and live in them;
plant gardens and eat what they produce.
6Take 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.
7But 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.
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.
11For 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.
12Then, when you call upon me and come and pray to me,
I will hear you.
13When you search for me, you will find me;
if you seek me with all your heart,
14I 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.
And may God bless us
Our reading, and our understanding
And our applying of these words, to how we live our lives.
People who make movies have figured out a few things about us:
We love fast cars, and the people who drive them.
For the past century, Hollywood has put leading characters
Behind the wheel and sent them off into the unknown.
If you are a movie watcher
Think about some of the iconic movies of your life:
Thelma and Louise
The French Connection
Fast and Furious 6
Ok, maybe not that last one
But it serves my point:
The Fast and Furious movie franchise
Which is full of street racing and heists and action packed driving
So far has produced eight (can you believe it?)
eight feature length movies
And two short films that tie in to the story line.
I hear there are more in the works…
If you’re more a science fiction buff
But I could argue with you all day
About how the Millennium Falcon is more or less a space trans am
Doing some fancy acrobatics on its way to light speed.
Star Wars is a car-chase movie in space…
I mention all of this
Because we’re fascinated with stories of being on the run.
They tap into the part of our psyche that is either
bored with how things are going
Or, on the other end of things,
With our being unsettled with how things are going in our lives or in the world.
In the middle of what turned out to be another messy week in our world
With senate confirmation hearings and protests
and anonymous editorials in the newspaper
and hurricanes beginning to trouble our coastlines
I saw that Burt Reynolds died.
He was 82.
Burt came of age before my time, really.
His breakthrough movie, Smokey and the Bandit
Was the second highest grossing movie in 1977
Just after Star Wars.
But I watched it again late one night this week, to remember this movie icon
And his legendary mustache and piercing eyes and goofy, flirtatious wit.
Smokey and the Bandit is a car-chase movie.
Bert and his partner are trying to bootleg 400 cases of Coors beer
From Texas to Georgia
And along the way they pick up Sally Field
And are chased by a vulgar sheriff, Buford T Justice
Portrayed by Jackie Gleason.
If you are bone tired of all the strife going on in the national news
Or just bone tired because of work and life and school
That’s the very reason we have movies like Smokey and the Bandit
A bit of amusement that we can get lost in for a few hours.
Hollywood has figured out that we need these sorts of things, right?
And the most inviting storylines
Are just like this one:
A few people, on the run in a fast car, unsure if they’re going to make it or not.
These stories work, in part,
Because they fit our chaotic lives
And we see in them something of ourselves, if only by analogy.
The Bandit is on the run
Luke Skywalker is far from home,
James Bond has some gadget in his Aston Martin that will get him out of a jam.
Ethan Hunt, you can be sure,
will have an epic motorcycle scene in the next Mission: Impossible movie.
These fit our sense of being on edge, disrupted
And our Seeking after a satisfying resolution
to being unsettled.
This passage in Jeremiah might come the closest to that feeling in our life
Where we are on edge, disrupted
Seeking after a satisfying resolution
To being unsettled.
Here’s the backstory:
The Prophet Jeremiah was at odds with everyone around him.
Jeremiah began his ministry under the rule of King Josiah,
A popular and well loved king in Judah.
The reign of King Josiah was a peaceful one.
He was able to institute a number of reforms
That had set the nation on a path to becoming a very faithful,
and safe, and prosperous nation.
And after many years of Idolatry by many kings before him
Josiah was a welcome sight.
There’s an entire swath of our bible, in the Old Testament
That tries to tell us the importance of our leaders
And what good leaders do to inspire us and lead us and equip us to greater things
And how bad national leaders, who seek after their own enrichment or grandeur
Tend to lead the people to ruin.
Josiah was one of the good ones.
Even so, the little kingdom of Judah
Did not stand a chance in the war of the ancient superpowers.
In a battle against the Egyptians, Josiah was killed
And the welfare of the nation quickly deteriorated
As Babylon’s power continued to rise.
Exile was imminent.
Imminent for the people of Israel and Judah.
And once again, they began to stray from the true worship of God
That they were taught under King Josiah.
Now, Jeremiah could see the writing on the wall.
He knew what lay ahead for God’s people.
And every time he spoke of it…he was ridiculed.
The people refused to believe him.
They refused to believe him,
Because they had been told by other beloved prophets
Take, for instance, Isaiah,
Many years earlier
That Jerusalem, the holy city, the home of the temple
Was always going to be safe.
Exile would not come, they said.
Jerusalem would not be destroyed.
And what’s more,
There are many other prophets around, right now
Who are saying the same thing.
They are quoting Isaiah,
Why aren’t you? Jeremiah?
Why should we listen to you
This one crazy man
Hellbent on ruining the hopes of everyone
And so the people rebelled against Babylon
And they were sent into exile
Caught in between the global ambitions of the world’s superpowers
Egypt and Babylon….
That’s where we pick up today’s reading
On edge, driven from what we’ve known and loved
Looking at an unknown future.
Jeremiah is writing to his people
The leaders and the artists and the families
That have been uprooted from their lives back in Jerusalem
And are now living in a strange land.
Jeremiah is worried
Because there are people who are trying to sugar coat the reality of what is going on
Just two more years, they say, and God will send us back home
All will be just as it was before.
But its not to be.
Jeremiah knows that
And he is tasked with sharing the honest truth with them:
Its going to be a long exile.
Seventy years, a good long time, in Bible Speak
Maybe two whole generations long
And the things you’ve loved about the way things were
The sight of the market in the morning as you made your way to buy bread
The sounds of the sheep on the hillside outside your town
The comfortable practice of going to the temple to offer your sacrifices
These are behind you now.
Jeremiah isn’t in a very good spot, here.
If it were me, I’d rather listen to the voices telling me that we’d be going home soon
That we could just put it all back together
After the war had torn it all part
As if nothing had changed.
But we all know that this is not how life works.
We carry the scars of our lives with us
The wounds of our broken hearts
The holes in our past where dead or departed loved ones once were
The pain of rejection or violence or injustice done to us.
Even Jesus bears his wounds upon his resurrected body
A reminder that we can’t ever undo what has been done
The toothpaste doesn’t go back in that tube
What’s done is done.
There is promise, though
And through promise, there is hope, and healing, and sometimes even resurrection
By which we mean new and lasting life that triumphs over death.
Jeremiah turns to his people
And he shares with them the truth:
There’s no undoing this
You are now in exile. Your home is in Babylon.
But God is faithful, Jeremiah says.
God has not abandoned you, or forgotten you,
God knows the plans God has for you
Plans for your welfare, for your happiness, for your ultimate and lasting joy.
That is possible for you,
Even in exile
Even after years of struggle and difficulty
It is possible for you.
How do you do it?
How can we do it?
Live your lives to the fullest, Jeremiah answers.
Don’t go sulking off,
Plant Gardens, and tend to them, eat what they produce
Have children and grandchildren
And, more than that, find a way to love the place where you are today
The city of exile, where you find yourself
Love THAT place
Pray for THAT place
Even as you are now the stranger, the foreigner in the land
Seek THEIR welfare
Because in their welfare you will find your welfare.
In this new time and new place
When you’re on edge and disoriented
When the car chase is over
And the adrenaline is working its way out of your system
And you look in the rear view mirror and see that so much has changed
In its wake
Take a breath.
Turn and look forward
And start rebuilding your lives
And I will be with you, Says the LORD
To give you a future with hope.
This is a sort of transition from the previous sermons
Where we’ve been focusing so much on how we treat others
Because of what God has done for us.
Now we’re asked to pause
And understand something really important in the entire arc of scripture
The story of God’s interaction with the world and with God’s people.
God will not abandon us.
We may have moments where we run away from God
Or where we fail to live up to how God wants us to live
Some might feel like the world under our feet is shifting too quickly for us
Others might be yearning for justice
after years of being seen as less-than-equal
As a people, as a nation
We might walk down the wrong path
And end up in moments of discord and confusion
And even so: God is right there
In the heart of things
Reminding us that God remembers God’s plan for us
For peace and harmony and hope.
What we’re asked to do is to keep at it
To seek to love the people right in front of us
The people God gives us to love
The people in our family
Those in the homes next door
The people we encounter at the check out line at the grocery store
Or driving next to on the interstate.
The city where God has planted us
The community in our neighborhood.
Seek their welfare.
In their welfare you will find your welfare.
And I will not abandon you.
You will look for me, and you will find me.
It may seem like a long time to you
But I am there. Have hope.
It was an astonishing thing, in a way
To tell the Hebrew people to build a new life there in Babylon.
It would require loving the people who hurt them
And working to adapt previous traditions to new times
And trusting that God’s promises would win out
Over the tumult of the world.
It didn’t always work out as smoothly as Jeremiah urged.
But survive and, eventually, thrive they did.
God’s promises endured.
How might we, my friends,
Learn from this ancient wisdom
That as the world changes
We are told to keep up good hope
To Trust in God’s faithfulness
To root ourselves in the values of God
And to seek the welfare of those around us.
I was driving home yesterday
From a funeral in Wellington, Kansas.
That’s about a half hour south of Wichita
I had to leave at 6 in the morning to get there
And I was tired and a bit cranky on the drive home
Though, if I’m honest
The cheesy potatoes from the reception pot luck
Might have contributed to that fatigue.
But I was doing fine
I had my dunkin’ donuts coffee and I was driving along
And I saw what looked like it could have been The Bandit
Coming up fast behind me
Though, it wasn’t a black trans-am
But a kind of beat-up old ford
And it passed me going pretty good clip
But there was a van, in his way, you know
Passing another car there in front of us
In the left hand lane
So the beat up old ford had to tap his breaks
And let the other guy finish what he was doing and merge back over.
Well, the ford guy let him know he wasn’t happy with all this
And so, as he passed,
He shared a little gesture, you know
And honked and all and sped off.
And I saw the guy in the van just wave at him.
Now it was my turn to pass the van
And so I did, and I looked over
And the van driver looked at me
And waved, politely
And mouthed the words “good luck out there”
As I drove by.
I was struck by what seemed to be his kindness
On what would have been, for many, a really stressful moment
He was sharing with me an acknowledgment that we were on the road together
And he wished me well.
It was just a little moment in what was a really busy Saturday
But its been with me ever since
An example of what living in a way
that seeks the welfare of those God puts before you might look like,
one that was offered to me….
How might you live your life so that
You can trust in God’s hope
That you can live in God’s promises
That, even in your own daily tumult
You can share care and compassion with those around you.
In their welfare, you find your welfare.
May we seek out those moments
So that the hope of God may become vibrant and alive in our lives
And give us a sense of assurance
That though change maybe scary
God is there, to give us a future.
Seek the welfare of the city
Words to build a life on.
May it be so.