Seek the welfare of ‘our city’…
and give thanks
October 9, 2022
Scriptures: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 17:11-19
Last week our first reading from the book of Lamentations was set in the time following the overthrow of Jerusalem and the forced exile of the Hebrews to Babylon. Forced to live in a strange land, separated from their beloved and now destroyed Holy Temple, treated in ways they were not at all used to, these sorrowful and dejected people composed songs of deep lament. Yearning for a return to their homeland they were desperate for some sense of how they might regain God’s favor, which they felt they surely had lost.
Our reading from the First Testament today is set slightly before that in the time after the first deportation of Hebrew upper class society to Babylon, but before the full and final destruction of the Temple. There was false prophecy circulating around and among those in exile during this period that it would only be a brief stay in Babylon, and that they would be allowed to return to their homeland in fairly short order. Jeremiah speaks out against this false belief and in effect is warning the Israelites that this trial is not going to end for them any time soon.
The prophet Jeremiah was actually in prison while this first attack of Jerusalem was going on. He had actually been placed in prison by King Zedekiah of Judah precisely for prophesying that the city would fall at the hands of the Babylonians. After Babylon conquered the Hebrew territory and began sending the upper classes of the Israelites into exile, the forces of Nebuchadnezzar released Jeremiah and offered to let him go to Babylon if he wished. However, Jeremiah preferred to remain in Israel, and it is from there that he is reputed to have written the text of our reading and sent it out to the exiles living in Babylon.
Now to be sure, the Hebrews did feel that their misfortune was punishment from God for failing to follow his commands and instructions. Jeremiah, in seeking to offer hope to those in exile, was also relaying what he had received from the Lord in telling them to get used to living in a place and under circumstances that were alien and uncomfortable.
‘Build houses, plant gardens, build families’ the Lord says, and then ‘seek the welfare of the city’. ‘Live in such a way that the place into which you have been sent is made better by your presence…for in doing so, you will find your own welfare increased. Regardless of how you feel, how uprooted and uncomfortable in this very different and strange land that is not your own, and which does not call on the name of your God, regardless of what it looks like now, seek the welfare of that place, for in doing so you will prosper as well’.
And in that understanding, I heard an echo of the very beginning of our faith story in Genesis Chapter 12, when the Lord first called Abram, soon to become Abraham, and made a covenant with him. The Lord promised Abram that he would bless him, and bless him abundantly, so that Abraham would then be a blessing to all humankind. ‘I will bless you to be a blessing’…seek the welfare of the place into which you have been placed, so that by doing so, you will not only bless them, but be blessed yourself as well.
And that I would say, finds all of us right here! Let me tell you a little story to show you what I mean…follow me on an imaginary journey as we listen to the discussion of a number of angels in the ‘Lord’s Construction Corp…’ I have titled it ‘a story for today’, and would like to share it with you…
Gabrielle, who was the lead contractor for the Lord, had asked those working on a particular project to assemble at 10 am that morning to review the progress, and as well as any new changes or issues that may have arisen since their last meeting. So the draftspeople, the builders, and the procurement department specialists all met as requested and took their seats as Gabrielle cleaned off the chalkboard from the previous day and then turned to address them.
‘Thank you all for being prompt’, she started. ‘This project down in Patterson, NY is going along very nicely, but I just wanted to be sure everything was lined up to continue the construction without any unnecessary delays.’
An angel by the name of Juan spoke up saying, ‘Thank you Gabrielle for calling this meeting. As one of those on the original concept committee, I think it might be helpful to review the full scope of the project just to be sure the order of operations is followed and that we don’t perhaps leave out any critical building blocks along the way.’
‘Thank you Juan’, replied Gabrielle. ‘To be sure this seems like an ambitious project for such a small group of people, but as you all know, it is about what can be done once the project is completed, not about how many ‘two or mores’ are actually available at this point on their journey. Perhaps it would be helpful Juan if you could give a brief overview of the project first.’
‘Surely, I would be glad to’, said Juan. ‘We know that belief down on earth is being sorely tested of late as so much social division and misunderstanding seems to grow stronger every day. People are not sure what to believe anymore, and those who call themselves followers of our Lord have such very different understandings of what our Lord’s message actually was’.
‘Sort of like those whom Nebuchadnezzar took off into exile in Babylon I suppose’, said Juliet, another of those on the planning and concept team.
‘Yes, exactly’, said Juan. ‘They have been so greatly blessed, but so many still lose sight of who it is that has blessed them, and so many are routinely left out of having a portion of the goodness and provision that was intended for all.’
‘Which is why we chose Patterson in the first place’, said Gabrielle, ‘by helping them to be a visible blessing right there in their own community we are able to reach a huge number of others as well. When we are done (which of course we never are), we will be able to watch as the welfare of everyone there increases, even in the midst of all of that which would otherwise normally work against the purposes of our Lord. Please continue on Juan with the overview.’
‘Okay’, said Juan. ‘Overall, we are helping them utilize their three buildings in new and creative ways, basically ways which serve the community as a whole rather than just those who gather on Sundays. Years back we helped them prepare the sanctuary so that it can be used in a wide variety of ways and for a wide variety of purposes. The Fellowship Hall across the street is now a Thrift Shop that benefits so many in the community with used and new clothing and housewares, as well as serves as a distribution point for food that has been donated for those who are hungry. And the old schoolhouse that served for years as the Grange hall, and which has housed the church food pantry for many years, is now in the process of becoming a community soup kitchen, as well as a venue for many other activities that will benefit the community such as community dinners, meetings, and even classes to help strengthen the community spirit. We must really applaud those here in this room who have helped arrange all of the resources needed for these activities and initiatives to become a reality, for surely much was required!’
‘Yes, that’s for sure’, said Gabrielle. ‘And all the work to date has begun to be noticed by more and more people as they stop by and not only see all that is actually available, but also hear the testimony of the church folk themselves, as they share all that we have been putting in place for them.’
‘Yes, it is like the more we help them build, the wider the group of people who are being helped grows’, said Maria, one of those tasked with not only the demolition of old and outdated parts of the project, but the actual construction of the new opportunities there. ‘I am so happy everytime we do even a little thing down there, for it not only allows more light to shine in, but that light is then reflected on the faces of the church members who are laboring so hard to fulfill the purposes of the project down there even as it is being built.’
‘Yes, I have seen that as well’, said Gabrielle. ‘And not only are they able to help those who come through the doors of the building, but they have taken hold of the truth that their call is to ‘prosper the community as a whole’ as well, by going out and being our love and grace in all of the places we send them. It was so fun watching them work at the recent bar-b-q, where so many were served not only chicken and corn, but a full helping of warmth and goodness as well. And the blessings we were able to add on as a result, not only with the generosity of Tommy and Marianne Stevens, but with the promised expansion of the sanctuary use to include blues music and even a musical Christmas extravaganza were such a joy’.
‘Yes’, said Juliet, ‘we do not always acknowledge how important those add-ons are to the original vision we had. Leave it to the Lord to expand even our best ideas and work with greater love and usefulness!’
‘Well’, said Gabrielle, ‘I didn’t ask you all to come here just to go over the work so far, but also to share that the people of the church have continued to be faithful, and have continued reaching out to the Lord for ways in which they can even further expand the use of all we have given them. You all are aware that this one to one communication goes on all the time with our Lord, and we are not always in the loop immediately. Just like the time when they decided to put in that garden project along with the greenhouses and all which none of us saw coming. But now we have been able to, pardon the pun, grow that project to such an extent that it became a seed that is now blossoming into the new Soup Kitchen’!
‘Are you telling us Gabrielle’, asked Juan, ‘that our plans and drawings have to be revised again? It seems like everytime we get close to completing a project, the Lord adds on more work for us. It is a joy to be sure, but it never ceases to catch me by surprise.’
‘Yes’, answered Gabrielle. ‘And even though this does happen frequently, it is as you say, always a joy to see some of our Lord’s be family able to prosper their neighbors and community even more fully, especially in these times when there seems to be so much confusion about who our Lord is and what our Lord’s true purposes are.’
‘Well, dear Gabrielle’ said Juliet, ‘don’t keep us in suspense any longer! Let us in on the joy we already can see on your face! What is it that is going on now, in addition to all that we already have been working so hard on?’
‘Well it seems’, answered Gabrielle, ‘that the little church next door reached out and asked the good folk of the church if there might be a way for that lovely little building to be used again, as it has sat vacant for so long now. And of course, the Lord is always open to making a project richer and more useful, so I have been asked to inform all of you, that the Lord wants this added to the list of unfinished business of the project. I’m not sure where it will all go, however I have a sense that that little corner of the town is going to become even more of a blessing for that community as a result of this new addition to our task list. Isn’t it amazing how such a small group of people who are willing to reach out and listen and dream together with our Lord are able to make such profound use of our holy inventory? Surely we can integrate this new request from the Lord into our planning and preparations. I just can’t wait to see what you all come up with! So, let’s all get going!’
And with that, the angels filed out, talking excitedly amongst themselves as they too began to let their imagination wander around and through this new blessing being offered for the community as a whole…and obviously, for the Lord’s good pleasure.
Last week, I shared what I felt was the almost perfect connection between our reading from Lamentations and the gospel reading that followed. I shared that indeed deep and troubled ‘lament’ still flies heavenward from the hearts of so many today, making our Lord’s assurance of our ‘mustard seed faith’ not only sufficient, but necessary in seeking to reach out and bring others into the saving knowledge and grace of our Lord of love.
And today’s gospel reading lifts up another critically important responsibility in our continuing dance with the angels of our Lord. And that is, that we must ever remember to be thankful for all that the Lord has led us through and to in helping us find all of the ways in which we have been able, and continue to be able to seek the greater welfare of our own little ‘city’ right here!
For in doing so, we ourselves are enriched as well…
…truly, like Abram, we are being blessed in order that we might be an even greater blessing for all of our friends and neighbors. So, let us never fail to give thanks for the goodness of our Lord, and all that goes on behind the scenes, unbeknownst to us, that makes our work here possible…
…and truly promises to increase the welfare of our little town!