October 9, 2022, Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Faithful Flourishing"

Oct 9th  |  Jerusha Van Camp |  Jeremiah 29:1-7

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   Would it interest you to know that I wrote this sermon 3 times in 3 different ways? The first two didn’t sit right with me. I kept praying, ‘Lord, what do you want to say to your people?” And this is what came next.

   It’s a strange time in this world. I don’t know if you feel it, but I do. It’s a transitional time in my life personally, but this sense of unease is everywhere. I feel it on a national scale as I read about corruption in our government and how close we came to losing our democracy. I feel it on a state level, when those making the laws do not represent all of the people they are supposed to represent. I feel it here in Evansville, as we are on the precipice of a change of guard in our own town’s leadership. I feel it as I have said goodbye to so many who helped pave the path that I am walking on. I feel it here, as we persevere on this journey towards a new chapter with a pastor whom we do not know. 

   As people of faith who come to church on Sundays online or in person, there isn’t a message that you haven’t already heard in some form or another. A sermon that will end with “trust God, our God is faithful, or God loves you” all of which are true, but we need more than that on this day and in this time. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God to imbibe us with hope and vision in this in-between time. 

   Today’s passage is also troubling when we read between the lines. In verse 4 of Jeremiah 29 God says, I sent you into exile, and then instructs the people to go on with life as if they are not strangers in a foreigh land and as if they had not been forced there against their will. If that is not bad enough, God isn’t even promising to rescue them or take them home. Instead, God is saying dig in, you’re going to be here for a while. 

   I remember my own discomfort when in the weeks after Kevin’s death, Jingle Hagey said to the congregation at the 8:30 service, “Kevin gave us our marching orders, we know what to do, let’s do it.” How is it that I remember those words she said after nearly 8 months have passed? I believe it’s because those words were prophetic and true. 

   Get to work, plant gardens, build houses, marry, have children, live, grow, plant, build..this was the word of the Lord to the Israelites and it is the word of the Lord to us today.  

   It does seem counterintuitive to grow, build, and plant when we don’t know if we’re going to like the new pastor. It does seem premature to grow, build, and plant when we don’t know if we will have a government that is actually by the people and for the people. It does not motivate us to do the work of living when we don’t know if there will be a place for us in this new time and in this new chapter. 

   Maybe your struggle has nothing to do with this church or what is happening in the world. Maybe your struggle is in the haze of personal crises or in living life after the death of a significant relationship, but the same truth remains. God’s word to God’s people is to grow, plant, and build in the midst of the most desolate and difficult times of our lives.

   In today’s Old Testament text, after telling them to grow, plant, and build, God then tells them, your welfare is intricately tied to the welfare of all that is around you. God is not only thinking about Israel in this moment. God is also concerned about the people of Babylon. 

   Here, God is expressing one of the most important aspects of creation. Science is only beginning to understand just how interconnected all of creation is to each other. It’s easiest to see when a species goes extinct how its absence impacts the environment. It is the same within humanity. Whatever happens to me, happens to you, and if I sit down and die, so will everything around me. God loves us and cares for us, but God also loves and cares for this city, this state, this nation, and all the peoples of every nation, tribe, and tongue in the world. 

   God’s command here in Jeremiah is to multiply not decrease. In Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible, he translates the phrase, “do not decrease” as, “do not dwindle”. Now is not the time to dwindle my friends, not here, not at home, not as citizens of this town, state, country, or the world. We must seek the welfare of the city!

   I’ve had the privilege of scanning photos and documents into digital formats as the Bicentennial team prepares for our celebration on All Saint’s Day. I’ve seen the evidence. This church knows how to dig in and build during uncertain times. For 200 years, First Presbyterian Church has weathered losses and transitions that should have closed our doors, but here we are, still alive, still doing ministry here in this place where God has sent us. 

   This dying and rebuilding is a repeated lived, reality for the church worldwide. We could not be resurrection people without the necessary struggle and the inevitability of death. Despite living in a post-Christiandom world, the faithful will continue to plant, to grow, and to build in every season and in every time.

   Imagine with me what it must have looked like when the people of Israel followed God’s mandate. Imagine what their homes and gardens might have looked like at first. I can’t imagine that they would immediately have all of the resources, the seeds, the building materials that they needed to create the level of comfort and familiarity that they had in Jerusalem, but I do imagine them making it the best they could with what they had. As the years passed, I imagine those gardens began to grow wild and produce food. I imagine those houses began to take the shape of homes with the cries of hungry babies and playful children. 

   To flourish is to thrive and develop successfully. I’ve always thought of flourishing only as an adjective, to describe something. I have never thought of flourishing as an action verb, but in this context, I think it is fitting. God’s command was not just to do things to get their mind off of what had happened, but was a mandate to participate in the activity of flourishing. 

   Flourishing isn’t built in a singular action or project. Flourishing is an action dependent on faithfulness. It is our faithful hope in God’s promises of a thriving future that leads us to flourish. It is believing in God’s promises and loving one another enough to show up over and over again against every discouragement, obstacle, and fear.  It is remaining faithful to our baptismal vows to turn from sin and renounce evil and its power in the world. It is relying on God’s grace, loving God and our neighbor. It is teaching our children about God’s love. Faithfulness to God is lovingly guiding and nurturing each other in prayer, in witness, in word, and in deed. Faithfulness is devoting ourselves to the church’s teaching and fellowship in the breaking of bread. 

   Flourishing doesn’t just happen, we make it happen when we are faithful to dig in, to plant, to build, and to gather. Our New Testament lesson today ends with this charge: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.” 

   So let us be faithful to God in our hearts, in our daily living, and in our service and let us see the goodness of God right here, right now in our lives. Faithful flourishing starts here with me and with you. May we hear Christ’s call and answer with our hearts, our hands, our feet and our gardening tools. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Mother of us all. Amen.