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“Faith and Stability”
Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
The prophet Jeremiah had a tougher job than most preachers. His congregation was hundreds of miles away, and he had to deliver a message that would both raise the spirits of those who were feeling hopeless, and burst the bubble of those who were living in a dream world.
The people were in Babylon, and Jeremiah was in Jerusalem. He was writing to them just a couple of years after they had been deported, forced out of Jerusalem when the Babylonian armies invaded. Now they were subjects of the Babylonian emperor. At the time of Jeremiah’s letter, some other self-styled prophets were telling them they could start packing their bags to go back home again any day now, that God was going to intervene to knock the high and mighty Babylonians off their thrones and return everything to the way it used to be, when the people felt safe and protected and free. Jeremiah was the one who had to inject a note of sober realism into the fantasy of a quick return.
Who could blame these exiles for clinging to the hope of going back home? They had lost not only their homes and their wealth, but also their friends and relatives, a whole network of sustaining relationships and institutions that gave life meaning. The structured, reliable world they knew was gone. In the pagan world of the Babylonians, their most treasured symbols of faith were dismissed, or even mocked. The crisis they were in was not only social and political; it was also theological. What the exile meant to them was that for all intents and purposes, the Babylonian gods had won, and the God of Israel had lost. Not only that, but the people’s identity was tied up with the land of Israel; cut off from that land, they were in danger of losing their family story.
But now here is Jeremiah telling them to hold their horses, because they are not going home anytime soon. In fact, says Jeremiah, you shouldn’t be making any plans that aren’t going to be carried out right here in Babylon. If you’ve been holding off on getting married so you could have the wedding in Jerusalem, I suggest you rethink that. Go ahead and get married – there are ways to do that in Babylon. Have children. Establish households. Plant gardens. Make a life for yourselves. From now on, your life is tied up with the life of this city, not the one you left behind. Later in the chapter, Jeremiah refers to a period of seventy years before the time of exile would be completed. That meant that those who had been forced to leave their homes probably would never return to them. For better or for worse, their future was in Babylon.
Jeremiah is telling the exiles to commit to a different kind of future from the one they’d imagined, to face the fact that the old reality was gone for good. God, in fact, had a different kind of future in store for them, and the best thing they could do would be to try to find their place in it, and thrive.
For the last two or three decades, certain church leaders and Bible scholars have been comparing the church to a community in exile. They say that the surrounding culture dismisses, ignores or mocks the practices and symbols that are deeply meaningful to us. The church used to have so much influence in the culture that major newspapers would publish the Sunday sermons from the top pulpits, but now the church has been displaced from the center of things, and feels threatened by the secularism of the surrounding culture. We in the mainline churches especially feel this decline in influence, as the Christian right gets all the media attention. Even acknowledging their political power, though, we have to concede that the church is not the center of most people’s lives anymore, at least not in major urban areas. Many in the churches today have a powerful sense of dislocation. If you grew up in the church, you have probably felt that to some degree or another.
In these circumstances, the church tends to go in one of two directions – either to draw into itself as a self-defended little enclave, huddling together and passing judgment on the world; or to indulge in nostalgia for the past “glory days” while gradually merging more and more with the culture so that we become indistinguishable from it. The tendency of Presbyterian churches is more toward the latter – as our numbers decline, we spin our wheels trying to recreate what we once had, instead of imagining what we could have that would be different but just as meaningful.
Neither of these approaches is what Jeremiah has in mind for the exiles in his world. “You cannot change this situation,” he says, “so you must adjust to it. In fact, I am telling you to commit yourselves to it.” “Seek the welfare of the city, and pray for it, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Trust in God to help you find a new future, one in which God will also be at work. That is, in fact, exactly what the people did. They survived and endured by adjusting to their new reality while never letting go of their identity as the people of God. They didn’t forget their family story – they just added to it. The religions of Babylon have vanished forever, but the faith of the Jews has endured.
In times of dislocation and uncertainty, our natural human desire is to cling to the past, to look for stability in places and traditions that have been meaningful to us. But the people of God have always known that our stability is not in replicating the past, but in honoring it, remembering and celebrating those who have paved the way for us – as this congregation’s heritage members have done and are doing -- all the while being open to the unknowable future that God is bringing.
Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow is about a Kentucky barber who moonlights as a church custodian. He is not a religious man, but spending so much time at the church leads him to start attending Sunday worship, and while he has a lot of criticism for the preachers, he loves being with the congregation as they worship.
“They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but still they liked it. What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude.”
What Jayber Crow is drawn to in this community, it seems, is the stability they have found in each other and in God. What matters most is not what they sing or what the preacher says on a given Sunday, but the very fact that they are a community at worship, who can bring all that they are and have been before God, knowing that whatever triumphs or losses, whatever changes they endure in this world, God will be a constant, and God will hold them together.
You all are now negotiating a time of uncertainty in your congregation’s life, as the PNC moves forward and my tenure here shortens, and you look forward to a new, yet unknown, pastor. This may seem to you to be a time of instability, and you may often find yourselves longing for what is past. The future, by definition, is unknowable, and perhaps for that reason alone you may find it hard to commit to it. But times of transition and uncertainty are also times that are especially fertile for creativity and imagination, for taking risks and trying what has not been tried before.
So our charge as a church is to honor our forerunners in the faith and in the life of this congregation; to remember both the triumphs and the struggles of the past; and to leave the future open for God’s shaping hand. We can honor the traditions of this congregation while still being courageous enough to imagine some possible new directions for it. After all, this church would not be here at all without the daring and imagination of its founders and the legacy they left for generations of “heritage” members to carry on with Christ’s ministry.
Our stability is in God and in the faith that keeps us coming here. That faith also gives us courage to go into the ever-changing world, to seek its welfare and to pray for it.
“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.” (Jer. 29:11)
Manassas Presbyterian Church
October 20, 2019
 Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), p. 2.
 Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (New York: Counterpoint, 2000), p. 163.