Grace Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2016, Pentecost 21C
Seek the Welfare of THIS City
I’m going to tell you all a little secret. I don’t want you to take this wrong, seeing that I’ve been here in Gainesville a little less than two years at this point. Actually I don’t feel that bad about saying it, really, because I know some of y’all have a similar experience to which you might be able to relate.
I miss Lawrence.
Mass Street (short for Massachusetts). Man, I loved Mass Street.
No, Lawrence is not a person (I'm not talking about missing Lawrence Welk). Lawrence is a place, the city in Kansas in which Julia and I lived while I was teaching at the University of Kansas. It’s a quintessentially cool college town. It has an amazing variety of restaurants for a city its size, representing a wealth of different cuisines. It was beautiful in the fall. (I miss fall, too.) I was working in one of the best public-university schools of music in the country, with great colleagues and outstanding students. The cost of living was pretty reasonable. We had a good church.
...ah, the ol' workplace...
I should hope you understand that is not meant as an insult to Gainesville to say that I miss Lawrence. (I even got it in writing. See? hold up shirt)
...and yes, I did hold up a shirt pretty much exactly like this.
But truthfully, I also miss Richmond. There are things I miss about West Palm Beach as well, and I even miss Tallahassee. (Now that’s probably the one to get Gainesville folk on edge, I guess.)
In short, I am as prone to nostalgia as anybody. And I know many of you are too – I’ve overheard some of y’all talking about the things you used to be able to do in places where you lived before, and even in the churches you used to attend when you lived in those places in the past. And you know what? At root there’s nothing wrong with that.
In our cases, for the most part, our leaving those places was voluntary; you weren’t rounded up and hauled away from your old hometown and deposited in the enemy capital of Gainesville, I’m guessing. In other words, your nostalgia is not like that of the people of Israel and Judah who had been carried away to Babylon, the ones to whom Jeremiah writes in today’s reading from that book.
This reading falls somewhat in the middle of the readings we’ve done so far; the exiles to whom Jeremiah writes here are the “first wave,” taken some years before the final conquest and destruction of Jerusalem. The king here mentioned as taken, Jeconiah, was the next to last king of Judah, predecessor to the short-termed King Zedekiah mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem, but a large number of Jerusalem’s people have been taken captive and held in Babylon, and to those exiles Jeremiah is writing a letter, a prophetic letter at that.
The “nostalgia” felt by these exiles is of a different quality than what I was acknowledging earlier; after all, I could pull up and move back to Lawrence if I really wanted to (although I might be doing so without my very happy Florida-native wife). These exiles can’t do that. They are in every significant way being held prisoner, even if they aren’t being held in a prison.
You hear some of this anguish and frustration in Psalm 137, some of which might sound familiar:
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
To be honest, the tone turns a lot darker after that, particularly by the time you get to verse 9 of that chapter. But here the sadness, the despair, the lament of the exiles is expressed in both beautiful poetry and great emotional depth.
Now, we know Jeremiah is capable of lament, and capable of pronouncing harsh judgment. But that’s not what happens here.
Instead, Jeremiah (relaying the word of the Lord) tells them to build houses.
“Build houses and live in them,” he says. “Plant gardens,” he says, and eat what grows in them. Let your sons and daughters get married—encourage them to do so. Live there. Be there.
Now a few verses down, starting in verse 10, Jeremiah relays God’s promise that God’s covenant children would indeed return to Jerusalem, which indeed does happen. But in the meantime, the Lord is quite specific: live where you are.
And even more, in verse 7:
…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.
Your well-being is tied up in the well-being of the city where you live, says the Lord. Pray for it, the Lord says through Jeremiah. Seek what is good for this city – THIS city, the city where you are.
Notice what God doesn’t say. There’s nothing about overthrowing it – a rebellion would probably be little more than a good way to die, but God doesn’t order that. No being separate or withdrawing. Live there. No trying to turn Babylon into some clone of good ol’ Jerusalem. But also no “giving in” – don’t fall for the idols of that city, the way you fell for foreign idols even in Jerusalem. Live there. Maybe even pick up those harps and sing again.
Now it might seem less than obvious how this applies to us. As noted before, we aren’t exiles; we don’t have to live here. We can move. We can leave Gainesville.
But think about that nostalgia we were talking about earlier, back at the beginning of this sermon. That was mostly about individual nostalgia, me remembering living in Lawrence or Richmond or wherever, or you living where you might have lived before you came to Gainesville.
But nostalgia can happen communally as well, and sometimes that kind of nostalgia can be a problem. Churches are particularly prone to this, I fear. I’m pretty sure you know where I’m going with this; we pine for a time when the church was full – not just this church but all the churches were full-up every Sunday and maybe even twice on Sunday. I have no idea if that’s how it was here, but I’m going to guess that’s how we remember it. We remember how you couldn’t really get anywhere in this town if you didn’t belong to the right church, for that matter.
We look around and the city is not what we remember. We remember when we knew everybody who owned the restaurants or shops or businesses or manufacturing or anything of importance in the city. It was comfortable, and we liked it. It’s not comfortable now, and we don’t like it.
That kind of nostalgia can become its own form of exile. It’s not a familiar place anymore, and we don’t understand why there are Jamaican restaurants or Israeli restaurants in town, with food that’s too spicy. We don’t understand how the university got so unbelievably big and takes up so much space in town and creates so much traffic.
We also don’t remember that the simpler time for which we might get caught pining was Hell for some of the folks who lived here then. Hell for those who weren’t the right color, or the right religion, or the right gender or the right sexual orientation or the right income level or even just from the right family. One person’s paradise is too often another’s torture chamber, and regrettably that hasn’t changed as much as we would wish.
But it was comfortable for us, and we liked it, and we don’t recognize the city around us now and we pull back and take ourselves into exile. And we might just be guilty of tolerating or even encouraging all kinds of vileness and hatefulness and unchristlikeness, as long as it’s directed at what we’re uncomfortable with. And through Jeremiah, God tells us to STOP IT.
Seek the welfare of this city – THIS city. Not the one we nostalgically conjure up in our minds, but this city, the one we live in now, with all of the diversity it entails. Six thousand – six THOUSAND international students just through the university, plus I don’t know how many faculty. People who profess religions we’ve never heard of before, or none at all, and don’t feel particularly conflicted about it, and might even run for office. People who at this point don’t even know we exist.
And God is just as surely telling us that our well-being is bound up in this city just as much as the well-being of the Jerusalem exiles is bound up in the well-being of Babylon, as horrifying as that must have sounded to them.
Part of what we are doing in the various missions and outreaches we support as a church in this community is just exactly this – looking after, as much as lies within us, the welfare of Gainesville or Alachua County. Only when things are better for those in Gainesville or Alachua County is our lot going to be better, God says.
Build houses, plant your gardens and eat what grows in them, and seek the well-being of this city of Gainesville. Our call is to find out what that means. But that’s another sermon.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#49 The God of Abraham Praise
#54 Make a Joyful Noise to God
#351 All Who Love and Serve Your City
#432 How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord
...and (ugh) even *this* city.