A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For October 9, 2016, the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Based on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Luke 17:11-19
I love the prophet Jeremiah. He lived at a time of changing international politics, politics that shaped faithfulness in his day and continues to shape our faith. Jeremiah saw God at work in those politics, calling people to obedience. Judah had made a treaty with Babylon, and part of that treaty was to pay money to Babylon. But Judah decided that it would withhold this payment. So Babylon moved in its armies, which would destroy all the cities in Judah, raze the Temple in Jerusalem, and deported most of the population, relocating them within Babylonian territory and demanding they build new cities.
Jeremiah is not the only voice we have from this period. Ezekiel is also a prophet of the exile. There are many psalms, most notably psalm 137. The last third of Isaiah comes from this time.
It is to these scattered, deported communities that Jeremiah is writing his letter, assuring them even though God has scattered the people of Israel into many places, God was still with them. Even though their families were separated, even though the familiar places were laid waste, even though they were forced to live in unfamiliar places, God was still with them.
He uses a tone of voice that commands attention, speaking as an ambassador for God:
Thus says the Lord:
While you live in these refugee camps and forced labor camps,
God tells you build homes, plant gardens and seek a prosperous life.
Allow your children to marry, and encourage them to have children.
Seek the welfare of the place where you live.
The instructions Jeremiah is giving are to go on with living. Yes your circumstances seem bleak, but life goes on – and life itself is a gift from God and is evidence that God is with you. Just because you woke up this morning you should be thankful to God. So live life with hope for tomorrow.
Consider the symbolic meaning of the instructions Jeremiah was giving. Even though you live as refugees, build homes: these are the places where hope for your family is known. Encourage your children to marry: in their love there is hope! Encourage them to have children: children are a symbol of hope! Even though your spirit is devastated by the things that have happened in Jerusalem, and even though you are depressed about the things that have happened to you, you are called not to despair but to hope! Even though things will never be the way you knew them to be once upon a time, even though you cannot return to what once was, God is still with you and God calls you to live with hope.
Every Sunday, after scripture is read here, you hear the command: “Here ends the reading. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Well, church, listen – for it seems as though Jeremiah could have written this letter to Lyonsville.
Even though you will never be the congregation you were 20, 30, even 40 years ago, you are still a congregation and you must still live with hope. Even though you are different than you were 20, 30, 40 years ago, you have reason to hope. Yes, there are aches and pains. Yes some of you will never be the same as the way you were. Yes, some relationships have been broken as people have moved away. Yes, you have even lost some of your best friends to death – yes, you have even lost some of your best congregational members to death. And God says, you must still live with hope, simply because I am with you. This is the word of the Lord.
The scriptures that were written during the exile recognize there is no going back to the way things were. The risk for faith at this time is to dwell in the past, mourning the losses – but the prophets and psalm writers use that sense of where they have been as a source for strength. A faith that knows exile can say, “even though things are now different, we trust that God is at work even in these different times” – because a faith that knows exile knows that God has made promises of a new future, a future that even though it will be different than the past it will also be different from the present.
That is the call to stewardship in this time of being displaced: God is promising a new future that is different from the past and also different from the present. Jeremiah’s call to invest in the new present is a command to begin using all resources to work for the new future that God is promising.
As Christians, we have something the exiled people of Israel did not have. We believe that we have seen a bit of God’s reign already here on earth. We believe that God took human form and walked among us, showing us a way to live in accordance with God’s covenants. We believe that Jesus showed us a way to live in joy, in hope, in service to others. We believe that the ministry of Jesus, shown in teaching and preaching, shown in healing and in feeding, shown in challenges to authority and affirmation of every person’s worth – these things in Jesus’ life showed us how God’s kingdom looks when it is lived here on earth.
We may feel like we are in a time of exile, a time following great loss, but even in the face of that loss, we are called to claim our hope in God’s future as shown in the example of Christ. And the scripture tells us: it’s not going to be easy, and it will require difficult changes, but God is with you as you go through these times of change.
So as we sing, as we prepare for our time of morning prayer, I ask you to consider the changes Lyonsville has faced. It is easy to think about the changes we have seen in our lifetimes. It is easy to mark the losses we have experienced in our individual lives, as a community, as a nation. Think also of the changes Lyonsville has experienced as a congregation, how are these changes opportunities for us to be faithful in a new way? How are these changes opportunities to show that we hope for God’s blessings – and I mean hope not as a daydream or a last-minute restoration but a deep hope that God is providing for things we haven’t even imagined yet. How can we engage these changes as ways to proclaim that we trust in God’s promises to provide, which gives us a sense of hope and joy?
Think about the changes we have already faced, and consider the changes that may are coming – especially the changes that Lyonsville faces as a congregation. What does it mean to be a congregation of faithful stewards when parts of the future are uncertain, unformed, and beyond our ability to discern? What does it mean to be a congregation of faithful stewards even when we know the patterns of the past cannot be replicated, and the future is going to be unlike anything we can imagine? What does it mean to be a congregation of faithful stewards when we feel displaced from familiar roles in our neighborhoods – and even our country? What does it mean to be a congregation of faithful stewards who look at all these uncertainties and still profess “Our God is with us.”?
Set aside the pledge cards and the slogans: Your stewardship challenge is to be a congregation professing in all circumstances “Our God is with us.”