Scripture - Jeremiah 29:10-14
Jeremiah 29:10-14, New Revised Standard Version
10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 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. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
As I was preparing to write the sermon for this week, I took a quick scan through my files to see when the last time I preached from this passage - and March 15th, 2020 came up...the last in-person service we had before the world shut down. We were in the middle of a series based on the book God Unbound by Elaine Heath and were starting to do some beautiful deep work together about the tradition behind our tradition, about how understand the story of our lives in light of the story of God’s work in Christ and in the world, and the whole book is about using wisdom from the book of Galatians to invite the church to follow the Holy Spirit's leadership beyond buildings and programs to join what Jesus is doing in the world.
And then….the pandemic started. Everything got tossed up into the air, out the window, and there was little solid ground on which to stand.
That Sunday was one of the rare times when I trashed the sermon I had written in favor of something different - and this scripture passage was the one I felt led to share.
So to see it come up again today as the basis of our congregation’s Stewardship campaign - A Future with Hope - made me think about the incredible journey we’ve been on together over the past 20 months with the pandemic...and even longer with our discernment about our denominational relationship...and the challenging work we’ve done for over two years.
Because it has been tough - we've all been impacted by loss, isolation, disorientation, wanting and yearning for the familiar. There are emotional and psychological wounds that many of us have experienced over the past 18 months and that we continue to carry because of the upheaval in our lives and because some of what we held as sacred and certain we could no longer cling to in the same way. With things as mundane as being able to go to the grocery store and get toilet paper - when the staples we rely on aren’t on the shelves - flour...carrots...all unpredictable...and how that connects in with our greater supply chain issues. Or how housing prices have skyrocketed, making it difficult for people who are working hard to afford homes and apartments and leading to greater instability and insecurity. Most of us had our basic needs threatened at some point over these nearly two years - physiological needs for rest and shelter and access to food...safety needs like health and emotional well-being or financial security...love and belonging needs as we isolated from one another. That’s a lot for us as a people to carry...certainly a lot for us as individuals...and we’ve been carrying it for so long to a greater or lesser extent that this disorienting experience is going to leave its mark on who we are for a long time...nevermind the fact that we’ve had almost 770 thousand deaths in the United States related to COVID and the amount or grief we as a people are carrying. Also nevermind that during this time we saw threats to our democracy and extreme racial tension.
And that’s where we enter into our Old Testament text - from the prophet Jeremiah, which might seem a little bit counterintuitive for us this morning as we think about Stewardship and celebrating lofty goals and new beginnings of this Community Church….but if we think about our story - the journey we’ve walked, the challenges we’ve faced, the disorientation and wilderness wandering and having to piece life back together after it’s been torn apart - it’s not a new story. It’s a story we see right here in the scripture passage - Jeremiah is speaking these words to the Jewish people after they had been wrenched from their homes and forced into exile by the Babylonians. They were living in a strange land with strange people with strange customs. Their whole sense of who they were as a people had been shattered. They couldn’t worship God in the Temple. Life as they knew it would never be the same. Their world had utterly changed. They missed their former life, they desperately wanted to go back to what was familiar and “normal” -- I don’t know about you, but that desire really resonates...especially navigating those early days of the pandemic.
Jeremiah, however, tells the Israelites -- cautions them, in fact -- not to end the exile too early, not to rush back to “normal” life without learning the lessons that emerge when one adjusts to new things. Jeremiah tells them to ground themselves in Babylon, to root themselves there - I want to read for you now the portion of scripture that immediately precedes this passage, from the same chapter, starting in verse 4:
4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
Jeremiah says, yes, things are going to be tough - for a long time. Anyone who promises you a different outcome, is giving you false hope and is stringing you along. What God wants for you is to live here. Grow here. Build here. Plant gardens here. Marry and have babies here. Seek this community’s peace and welfare - there are things to learn here...there are things to do here. And I will be with you - and I know the plans I have for you - for your flourishing and your prospering and to give you a future with hope.
But that future with hope starts in doing the hard work of building life in a strange and foreign place.
Building life in a strange and foreign place - isn’t that what we all saw at the beginning of the pandemic? People singing across alleys in neighborhoods. People making lunches for kids because they knew that with school closed, the kids would be hungry. People looking to support local businesses because they knew the challenge of staying afloat. Even the earth and wildlife reasserting itself in cleaner air and greener spaces as we paused and looked toward building meaningful connections with each other to help us get through.
The pandemic revealed so many lessons for us about building a just and equitable society - some of which we’re still trying to learn. We learned about health and wellbeing, checking in with each other, about how to work together and how we need each other and the deep ways that physically being able to gather together is part of what it means to be human.
And we - as the Chebeague Community Church - did that work so well. The church has played a huge part in keeping this community moving forward during the pandemic - all while we took a huge leap of faith in stepping out into a new future apart from the United Methodist Church. We stepped up to be a network of support for this community - whether that was through tangible needs like food or meals or a fiscal home for on-island testing and vaccination clinics or whether that was through meeting needs for support and encouragement through writing cards and gathering for worship or in smaller groups for prayer and honest sharing. We held sacred space for people to share and process everything from how to respond to racial injustice and continued divisions in our country and how do I navigate my friends and family who believe differently from me and how are we going to heal from this collective trauma we’ve experienced -- the church has been the place where those conversations and wrestlings and wonderings have happened. What a gift to have a place where we can share in this way with one another -- and what a gift that we can appreciate together - as we see how faithful God has been with us and the blessing we experienced even in the midst of this disorienting time...and how faithful God will be. And as we continue to emerge from this phase of the pandemic and we can be a place of hope and healing for all of us as we find ways to bear witness to the pain and challenge of this time, as we address the mental health crisis the pandemic has revealed, and as we begin, with God’s help, to put the pieces back together again.
Even in the midst of crisis, God says to us, “I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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.”
We were sent out in exile - and have come back in reunion - and again and again we come back in homecoming to this place to be sent out into the world to be a people of hope and healing.
That’s what this stewardship campaign aims to do - to help us continue to be a place of hope and healing for this island and beyond - as we dedicate a portion of what God has placed at our disposal for God’s use through the church, pledging our gifts for next year.
You all have a pledge card - and on one side there is financial information, and that is important for us as well. We do rely on financial gifts from this island for our operational expenses - for our programs, for staff, for things like heat and lights and insurance and property taxes. Nearly all of the money we use to operate the church on a day-to-day basis is from individual givers - not from grants or investments.
The other side...is blank. That’s because it’s going to be where we write what other gifts we want to give to God. Maybe you’re being led to offer 2 hours per week in service to the church. Maybe you’re being led to dedicate some time to knitting some prayer shawls. Or calling people in the hospital on behalf of the church. Or spending more time learning about the Bible with others in the church. Or collecting items to help refugees enjoy their first Maine winter. Or organizing a mission trip or service opportunity.
So while one side is for our financial gifts to give to the church next year -- the other side is for what else we want to lift up for God’s use in the coming year.
I’m going to give you a few minutes to fill out the card - and when you fill it out, you can come forward and place it in the basket up front here. For those of you who are here digitally, you can either take a picture of the card and email it to the church, message it to me, or you can mail it back to us. We’ll end with a prayer, dedicating all our gifts for God’s use in the world.
[couple minutes for folks to write those things - place in basket - prayer at end]
Because a Future with Hope isn’t just built with dollars and cents. But with Prayer. Study. Worship. Advocacy. Mission. Children. Teaching. Gardens. Potlucks. Prayer Shawls and Prayer Flags. Art. Poetry. Music. Helping. Caring. Sharing. A Future with Hope is built by creating a shared life....by creating a home base from which we do mission in the world...by creating and holding sacred space together.
Let us pray.
Gracious and Generous God, over and over, we become scattered and separated. Over and over, like a good shepherd, you find us and bring us home. For all the togetherness you’ve granted us at the Chebeague Community Church, thank you. For the gift of faith that gets us through times of separation, thank you. For prayer shawls, our food pantry, our book studies, our times of worship, for encouraging messages and places of connection, for Zoom - we give you thanks. In your generosity and grace, O God, use these gifts we commit to you for the building up of this church...for the building up of this community, so that you might make our separations easier, our homecomings even more joyful, and that we might have a future with hope, built on your great love for all of us. Amen.
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Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.