“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When 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. 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.

Slide02Every 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.

Slide03As 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.

SLIDE 4 - Seek the WelfareWhen 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.

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This 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 thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see 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.

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week 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. “[1]

Slide13These 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.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold 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.

Slide15While 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.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you

“God Up Close;” Luke 7:1-10; June 2, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Up Close”
Luke 7:1-10
June 2, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I have to be honest, the first time I read through our Gospel reading, I sort of shrugged and said “so what.” It’s not exactly a well-known story in the Bible, with all unnamed characters other than Jesus. At first I was honestly a little bored. Like the formulaic “man walks into a bar” joke scenario, the Bible gives us several, “Jesus enters the scene, something happens, someone’s healed, the end.” And so, my eyes glazed over a bit at this one. But as I read a bit closer and dug a bit deeper I discovered that there is a message in here that’s different from ones we’ve heard before, and maybe even more interesting than the usual bunch of stories because it is so rarely talked about. And sometimes when the characters aren’t given names it makes it just a bit easier for us to read our own names in these stories. So as we unpack this story today, lets think about where our own stories fit in.

Slide02In our Gospel today we hear of a man, a centurion who had a slave that he highly valued that was ill and close to death. The man sends out some Jewish elders to ask Jesus for healing. The elders speak highly of the man, saying that he is worthy of miracle, was a builder of the temple. This is the modern version of: “He’s a good guy, look at all these good things he’s been doing.”

Slide03Jesus goes with them. I don’t know if they asked him to go with them, or what instructions they were given by the centurion, but he go with them. I wonder what they talked about on that walk, if they used that time to fill in some more details about the centurion’s character or if they used their personal audience with Jesus to ask some questions of their own, but Jesus comes towards the centurion’s house and while he’s still a little farther off the centurion sends other friends of his to go tell Jesus “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” He explains, or rather his friends explain on his behalf, that that is why the centurion did not approach Jesus, he didn’t need him to show up. Rather, he says (through his go-betweens), “I, too, am a man of authority. When we say ‘do this,’ people do.” This reminds me of a bit of a old boy’s club nod and a wink saying, “I know how these things work.”

Slide04The centurion trusts that Jesus will just do Jesus’ job, and doesn’t need to mess with the particulars of his life, of his situation. I can see him wondering: If Jesus is a man of authority, why is he spending his time on house calls? If he is King of the Jews, why is he dirtying his own feet on his walk out to this man’s house, who is not even a Jew himself? The man is rather self-deprecating when Jesus comes to his own doorstep. He doesn’t believe himself worthy of miracle, worthy of a visit. But here is Jesus showing up.

As you say your prayers before mealtime or at night, do you ever expect Jesus to appear right there in your dining room or bedroom? When you call on God’s presence do you expect God to actually become present? Or are we more comfortable with Jesus at a distance? Sending our mediators, perhaps asking other people to pray for us, sending your pastor or favorite Christian author into scripture for you? Thinking, oh, I’ll let them figure out this faith thing for me. I’ll let them take care of the healing, take care of this faith business. While it is certainly a good thing to invite the spiritual support of others, we shouldn’t be surprised by the spiritual support of God’s own self.

SLIDE 6 - JesusThe amazing thing about God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ is that God does show up. God becomes human. God becomes part of our experience. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth God puts on skin, becomes earth-bound. Jesus’ incarnation is God taking the extraordinary effort of showing up, of making the God beyond all heavenly expectations into a God that experiences all the realities of this world. This is God showing up.

The centurion doesn’t believe he is worthy of a miracle, but does believe that Jesus is capable of it, whether he is worthy or not and he appeals to Jesus’ authority. He is a rather unusual character to extend such a request, whether it is in person or not. The centurion was a Roman soldier. Slide07Generally when we see dramas of scripture acted out Roman soldiers are cast as the “bad guy,” or at least the “not great” guy. They are often the law and order types in Biblical stories, the rule followers, the maintainers of the status quo. The Romans, particularly the Roman soldiers were the ones who were carrying out the systematic oppression of the people of Israel. Jesus is the one bringing out about the liberation of God’s people. Jesus is cast as the rabble-rouser Jew, the revolutionary, in opposition to both law and order of his time. But it is this man who calls for Jesus’ healing, with Jewish leaders who will vouch for his good character.

Preacher and Luther Seminary professor, David Lose shared this reflection on the character of this centurion:

“[The centurion] is more complex than perhaps many of his day or ours want to make him out. He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community. He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to one attribute or judge someone based on one element of who they are.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass with cardinal electors in Sistine Chapel the day after his electionPope Francis reminded us of that this week as well. During a homily at mass last Wednesday at the Vatican, the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works. The fact that he included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion – and here’s the mind-blowing element of the story – even though we have no particularly good reason to believe he becomes a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seem particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. [1]

Slide11Which brings us to an important question: you may believe that Jesus Christ was born and lived and died for our sins, but do you believe that Christ has the power to bring healing? Do you believe that our savior can indeed save? In this story, the faith that Jesus commends doesn’t even seem to have much to do with an individual proclamation of allegiance to all that Jesus is, but rather a simple faith in what Jesus can do.

Slide12Who are the people in your life who might have this basic inkling of faith? Who are the people looking for answers, grasping for hope, searching for healing? Might we bring Christ to them, to their doorstep? Might we pray on their behalf? Might we acknowledge their desire for connection to something greater than their own efforts? Might we, like Jesus, commend such a desire to be connected to goodness, their efforts to be a “good person?”

SLIDE 13 - HealingThe centurion had certainly heard about Jesus and all that he could do, but doesn’t expect or feel like he needs Jesus to show up, just to proclaim healing, and the healing will happen. Even in this rudimentary faith, Jesus makes the effort, not just to heal, but to come close. In this Jesus teaches the centurion what sort of savior he is, while commending the tremendous faith that the centurion already has.

Slide14God can proclaim healing at any distance, but God wants to be close to us. God desires to be a God of relationship. God’s desire to be real and present in our lives and in our world is the difference between sending flowers from a florist and planting a garden in your front yard. It is the difference between sending a flat postcard and sending a care package with homemade cookies and jam. This is the difference between sending a text message saying you’re thinking about someone, and sitting beside them in the hospital praying with them while holding their hands.

Slide15In Jeremiah 23:23-24 we read “Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.”

Do we believe that we need Jesus in our own personal lives in order to be whole and healed, or do we believe that God should just heal from a distance? Might we need to invite God closer to our own lives and our own experience?

SLIDE 16 - God is NearGod is both a God nearby and a God far off. When we are worried people experiencing tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma or West, Texas or Boston, Massachusetts, God is still also beside us in our daily concerns, in our skinned knees, in our broken hearts, in our need for forgiveness. It is a definite act of faith to expect God to show up for the healing of those we care about on a large scale, but we needn’t be surprise when God answers our large-scale concerns for healing and comfort for those that need it, with a simultaneous personal care for our own lives as well. We might not see ourselves worthy of God’s care and concern. We may echo the centurion and say, “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” But still, God shows up.

So where do you find yourself in this story? Are you the centurion comfortable and secure with God’s power at a distance? Might you believe in God’s salvation for others, but not quite sure that you’re the one that needs saving? Are you the centurion’s slave, desperate for healing, but without the perceived agency or resources to care for yourself? Are you one of the elders, deeply concerned for one of the “good people” in your life that might not know what sort of salvation Christ has in store for them? What is your response to Jesus showing up? Or do you even call him there to begin with? Who are the people in your life that are seeking Jesus? How might you bring Him near?Slide20

[We discussed our answers in groups within the pews.]

As you think about who you are, may you seek to invite God’s presence into your own life and may you not be surprised when God does indeed show up. Amen