‘seek the welfare of the city…’
October 13, 2019
Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Our passage is set during the period of the Babylonian Exile of the Hebrew people which began roughly around 600 years before the birth of Jesus, and lasted for about 70 years. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Israel and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. After the city fell, he took most of the wealthy and cultural Hebrew elite off into exile in Babylon. It is to these that Jeremiah writes our passage for today, encouraging them to settle in, to marry and have children, and to ‘seek the welfare of the city’ to which they had been taken, for in so doing he held, they themselves would prosper as well.
Historical accounts differ, but the consensus now seems to be that those taken off into exile in Babylon were not harshly persecuted by Nebuchadnezzar, however they were indeed strangers in a strange and different land. The very symbol of their history and of their faith, the city of Jerusalem, had been destroyed. The Babylonian invaders had razed it to the ground and in doing so deeply invaded and injured both the dreams and hopes of those taken away, along with any sense they may have had in eventually returning back to the land of their birth.
And it is against this backdrop, against this sense of hopelessness in a strange new world that Jeremiah counsels them not to lose themselves in despair, but rather, and quite unexpectedly, to instead seek after the welfare of the world they have now been thrown into and the city in which they find themselves. Aside from this call from Jeremiah seeming like a tall order, it also seems to run counter to what one might expect from such a devout champion of the faith. And yet, seeking the welfare of Babylon is what the prophet called for.
And in reading and pondering over this text, I found myself thinking of our own community and our own nation in these trying and difficult times. Truly there are moments when so much seems not quite right, not quite settled, when the land of our youth seems so far away and the world around us seems more strange and alien than familiar on occasion. So many around us seem enmeshed in worry, fear, or division, confused as to what to think, or even how to carry on in the midst of such social turmoil and national divisiveness.
And yet, a call to ‘seek the welfare of our city, of our nation’ may be just what we all need, both as a church within this community, as well as a people professing a faith that is seeking after peaceful and just coexistence one with another here and beyond.
For a good number of years now, we as a church have sought to fling wide the doors of the sanctuary and to go out into our community, looking for ways to address the many needs we find there, looking for ways we can put our abilities and resources to the best use in addressing them. We have sought hard to resist the impulse to close ranks within the walls of our church and to find ways to ‘seek after the welfare’ of only those inside those walls with us.
It has taken some time, but as a church, we have become convinced that the Holy Spirit of love is calling for a whole new way of being a light of hope and promise within the ‘city’ of our community, calling for us to extend ourselves fully and without hesitation in service to others and in partnership with other like-minded members of our community…outside the walls of our church, outside the walls of our ‘Jerusalem’…out into a world not always receptive to the faith.
And in an unexpected twist, this decision to walk out in faith at the urging of the Holy Spirit has enabled us to break free of the usual stranglehold of worry and concern about the future of our church. By lazer-focusing on the tasks that have been put before us, and trusting that our Lord will fulfill the promise to provide for all our needs if we pursue God’s kingdom ahead of all else, we have been able to forge a new place of being a trusted outlet of goodness, grace, and assistance to our own community.
Which I fear, is where others may fall short in being able to both prosper their communities, as well as to remain centered within the will and purposes of God. Many are the households of faith whose primary goal still doggedly remains simply to ‘keep the lights on’, and the buildings sort of ‘kept up’, somehow believing that by doing so they will eventually build the membership and increase the income at the plate.
Many are those who believe they can ‘do their ministry’ solely and fully within the walls of their church. That they can fulfill the call of the Lord upon them, by seeking to minister only to those who come through their doors. They truly believe that their calling is to be a light on a hill for others to see, and that they have succeeded in doing so…even if it is only a very faint light that actually makes it all the way to the outside for others to see…and even if the ‘hill’ upon which it sits is quite far away…perhaps even too far away from other people’s interest or understanding.
For in truth, ‘seeking the welfare of the city’ is a much broader call than one might imagine. It does not just mean ‘bloom where you are planted’. Our call is not solely to worry about our own issues, or to be concerned only for the welfare of our own people gathered within our own space. Indeed, we are to ‘bloom’ right here in our community, however what good is even the most fragrant and lovely ‘flower’ if it is ‘kept within the walls’ and no one else is able to enjoy its scent or to revel in its beauty?
For you see, the problem with simply ‘blooming where you are planted’ is that on occasion it can be very limiting. If it is focused inward, on oneself or on one’s own community, if it is concerned solely with one’s personal welfare, happiness, and security then in truth it is not able to positively impact the welfare of the community whatsoever. And that is because, as virtuous as it might sound, ‘blooming in place’ has no conditions or restrictions built in that insist on care for another, or indeed even on love or compassion being a part of its exercise. The prophet called for the Israelites to seek the welfare of the city as a whole…not just of their own gathering, or their own type.
Nor does the call to ‘seek the welfare of the city’ allow for complacency regarding issues of injustice we may see around us or in our nation. Rather it is a call to honor the words found in Matthew Chapter 6, where Jesus asks us to seek first and foremost the kingdom of God and God’s justice. For in truth, when it comes to the pursuit of God’s justice, there can be no true peace, no honest brotherly or sisterly love, in fact, no ‘welfare of the city’ without creating a space for, and then pursuing justice across the board.
Jeremiah’s words in our passage today, aside from calling us to be active in serving our own community, are also by extension a call to seek the welfare of our nation…a call to engage in the work of seeking to bring about one nation that truly is under the law and practice of God’s love. And so, as we engage these larger issues, these more complex problems, we must do so by creating one vibrant community at a time…standing tall and advocating for all God’s children.
And as with our work within our local community, so too with our nation…there is just no room for complacency on the part of the faithful when it comes to protecting the rights of, and ensuring equal justice and opportunity for all those who bear the image of our God, all across our land.
‘Seeking the welfare of the city’, is a much more radical call to service and sacrifice than we may be used to. For it is a call to serve as a light that shines brightly in a land sometimes fond of darkness, it is a call to be a beacon visible in the dark of night, even when there are those who make habit of seeking to cloak and hide the light of truth…and finally, it is a call to fully spend ourselves in seeking to demonstrate a new and different way to live in true peace and with open and honest harmony with the whole family of humanity.
Seeking the welfare of one’s own community is a critical call upon the life of every Christian, for in so doing not only is the life of the faithful strengthened, but the ensuing witness of grace and goodness serves to lead others into awareness of and eventual relationship with our Lord of love. But how, some would ask? How do we even begin to seek the welfare of our community, let alone that of the nation or the world?
If you are willing to stand in the flow of God’s Spirit, if you are willing to open your ears and your eyes to hear and see what the Spirit is showing you…and if you are then willing to act on the Spirit’s impulse…sometimes in small tiny ways, and other times in ways that seem far more involved and far more demanding of your time or resources…if you are willing to walk in and with the Spirit of grace in loving service and sacrifice…then the community around you will begin to turn…begin to turn inexorably towards the love that has been extended through you…
…and one person, one community, one county, one state, one nation, and finally one world will come to know and to believe, that it is only in seeking to love one another, that our future will be blessed and secure…and in the process…God’s kingdom shall emerge in our presence.
Therefore, let us all ‘seek the welfare of our community’…for only in so doing will we be fulfilling our Lord’s command to truly love every one another…one at a time…