Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 9, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there, that had this very phrase on the outside of the building, reminding all who came there of these verses we read today. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.
Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers. On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.
On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness. Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.
On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants. Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.
I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.
As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.
When I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.
When I think of Jeremiah’s direction to build, plant, multiply, and seek welfare wherever God has sent us, I think of all the ways that our church is connected to the world around us. In fact, one of the things that initially drew me to this church was the way that you are engaged with the community. When I meet people around town and they find out that I am your pastor these are some things that I’ve heard:
One man I met at a funeral said that he knew our church well from going to Alcoholics Anonymous here for many years and that he’ll always be grateful for the effect it had on his life. Did you know that A.A. meets in our building every day of the week? And on some days there are two meetings. It is not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of lives have been impacted by this ministry in our building.
One of our neighbors in the medical supply store across Aurelius was excited to meet me, saying that he’s so glad for the ministry our church does with the medical closet. While I thought such a business might object to us giving away for free the very kinds of items they were selling, he said how it makes him happy that we’re able to help those he has to turn away due to insurance or other financial restrictions.
When I visited our own Upstream band leader, Devin Lamb, in the hospital after he had back surgery last fall he told me about how he was excited that his insurance had covered some great medical equipment and that he couldn’t wait until he was done with them so he could give them to the medical closet. This is the spirit of this ministry, wanting the best for those in our community, particularly when they are in need.
Other people I’ve run into around town have asked, “Oh, you mean the food bank church?” I’m always happy to say yes to that. Though it’s a separate organization at this point, it began over 20 years ago as the ministry of a few individuals of this church in response to the needs of this community. At this point the food bank provides support for over 150 families each month.
One of the joys of being in the church building during the day is seeing how the shopping cart of food donations piles up and even occasionally hearing the stories of those who are donating. One particular story came from our very own Kalin Gleason who asked for donations for the food pantry as his birthday gifts this past summer. I love this picture of all the kids at his party all surrounding their gifts of food for those in need in Holt. The joy on his face speaks to the spirit of generosity and care for this community that shapes our church family members of every age.
This past week there was another occasion of our church investing in the life of our community. Students throughout the Holt district celebrated International Walk to School day. Our church was the gathering site for nearly 150 children, parents, and teachers before they made their way to Sycamore Elementary. Susan Land shared with me that this event was a great experience for all involved, creating opportunity for our church members to interact with the community, talking, laughing, and serving a small breakfast. Principal, Steve Garrison, shared that some students enjoyed this so much that they asked him if they could do this every day! For the time that they were together, our church members served as Christ’s hands, feet, and smile for our community.
This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about sharing what you can with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.
As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.
Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “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.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns. However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.
My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.
In my preparation for this sermon I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.” The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation. God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history. God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church? Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good? God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world. God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me. I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.” I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all. I need y’all. “
These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.
Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.
While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.