Tag: Mission

Bloom Where You’re Planted — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18C (Jeremiah 29)

Amsterdam
 

29 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. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 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.

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                The Word of the Lord was delivered by letter to the exiles living in Babylon. The mediator of this word was the prophet Jeremiah, who remained, at the time, in Jerusalem. Verse 2 tells us that this letter was written to the first wave of exiles, who were taken by the Babylonians along with King Jeconiah and the queen mother. It was before the revolt under Zedekiah led to the razing of the city, along with the Temple, but this word is a reminder to the exiles that they would be living in their new locale for a very long time. So, as the slogan that dates back to the 1960s declares: “Bloom where you are planted.”

                You can imagine how these exiled might have felt as they took up residence in a foreign land. They might have been wondering if their God had traveled with them. Did Yahweh dwell only in Judea and Israel? Were they in foreign territory, where different gods had control? Yes, this could be and probably was a rather depressing situation for the exiles. It’s good to remember that in the ancient world “church and state” were inextricably linked. So, had their god been overthrown? So, how might the exiles have heard Jeremiah’s word to them?

                I can imagine some of them hearing this word as permission to blend into the culture. When in Rome, does as the Romans do. Right? Now that they were in Babylon, why not simply become one of the Babylonians? If they worshiped Yahweh in Jerusalem, might they want to go to services at the Temple of Marduk? I don’t think this is what Jeremiah has in mind. The words we hear about settling in for the long haul by building houses, getting married, and having kids, doesn’t involve abandoning their calling as children of Abraham, Moses, and David. The monarchy might be teetering on the edge of collapse (remember that Zedekiah was simply a vassal placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar’s regime). For all intents and purposes, the monarchy had come to an end. 

 

                Blooming where you’re planted could involve blending into the surrounding culture. It is an enticement that is readily available in every generation, including the one we are inhabiting. The lure of power and influence, on one hand, can be intoxicating, of course, but so can the cultural benefits of blending in. Why not eat, drink, and be merry like everyone else? Could there be another way?

                The word of the Lord as delivered by Jeremiah seems to offer that third way. In counseling them to settle in by building homes, getting married, and having kids, Jeremiah is telling the exiles not to get depressed by their situation. Don’t despair. Make the best of things, but most of all remain faithful to their covenant relationship with God. While they may have once put their faith in a royal ideology centered on the monarchy, that was gone. So, a new vision is required for their engagement with the future. As Song Mi Suzie Park notes, “in the face of this religious upheaval, Jeremiah encourages the community to continue to have faith in God’s larger plan—a plan that seems utterly impossible, but which Jeremiah hints is possible for God. They are to hope and know that God can and will bring God’s promises to pass” [Connections, p. 377]. At this point, the Temple still stands, but soon that will be gone as well. Things have changed. There is need for a new covenant, and in time Jeremiah will reveal that covenant (Jeremiah 31). I should note that it is the promise of a new covenant that will give birth to the Christian movement. That is, in Christ we will be drawn into the covenant work of God that is no longer (if ever it was) tethered to the monarchy.

                The key to this passage is found in verse 7. It’s a verse that I find powerfully relevant for today, especially for those of us who live in large urban/suburban metroplexes. Jeremiah counsels the exiles to “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.”

Here is where blooming where you’re planted comes in. This is not a call for separatism? This is not a call for the people to go out into the desert and plant a colony that is faithful to God but not infected by engagement with the surrounding culture. No, this is a call to engage the community, without letting the ways of the world determining the nature of that work. This engagement can come in a variety of ways. I will admit to finding the idea of God transforming culture attractive. I have engaged in community activism. For instance, I’m a police chaplain, and in that guise and simply as a pastor I’ve offered prayers at community events. I’ve tried to call on our better angels and call for doing what is right and not simply blessing the status quo, but I’m sure some might hope for a more “patriotic” form of prayer, while others might question why I participate in such events. In seeking the welfare of the city, we might want to make use of our rights as citizens (if we are citizens) to register and vote not only in national elections but local ones. We might even go further in that, but it is important to keep watch on our motives. There are other ways in which we might engage. Faith-based community organizing is an important contributor to the welfare of the city (and other spaces/places). The same could be said of faith-based community renewal organizations. My congregation supports two such entities, one in Detroit and another in nearby Pontiac. These entities have their roots in the faith community, but they are making the welfare of the community as a whole their primary purpose.

The promise here is that if we pursue the welfare of the city—the place where we have been planted—then we will be blessed as well. In fact, our welfare is tied in with the welfare of the larger community. The point is not engagement, but the form that this engagement takes. Is it defined by notions of worldly power or by the power of faith? Are we engaged in this work because we believe it is of God, or because we desire power?

We might want to sing Eric Routley’s hymn “All Who Love and Serve Your City” as we contemplate Jeremiah’s words, the second verse of which offers us a word of invitation: “In your day of loss and sorrow, in your day of helpless strife, honor, peace and love retreating, seek the Lord, who is your life.” We might feel as if this is a time of sorrow and strife and wonder if God is present in the midst of this moment. The counsel of the hymn, and I think Jeremiah, is to seek the Lord, “who is your life.” Regarding the city in specifics, the hymn ends with this word of promise:

 
Risen Lord! Shall yet the city be the city of despair?
Come today, our Joy, our Glory: be its name, “the Lord is here.”   

“The Lord is here.” Even in Babylon. That is good news. It doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for the city. Instead, it reminds us that we are not alone in this work, and the way we engage in this work out to reflect the relationship we have with the Living God who is present not only in Jerusalem but also in Babylon and beyond.

             This word is sent to exiles, refugees (perhaps?). From a North American Christian perspective, I have tended to read this as a word to how I should engage the city/culture around me. That is, I identify with the exiles. But, what if I’m not part of the exile community? What if I’m a citizen of the land in which the exiles are sent? What if this word is sent to exiles/refugees/immigrants who have made a home in my backyard? What if my welfare is entangled with their welfare? It is good to remember as Miguel De La Torre notes, Jeremiah isn’t asking the exiles to forsake their identity or heritage or their God. This isn’t a counsel of assimilation.

Jeremiah does not call the exiles to stop being Jewish or worshipping their God. Rather, as foreigners, we are to work for the common good of all who also inhabit the land where we find ourselves. Foreigners should be willing to learn from the land’s inhabitants, in the same way that the natives of the land can learn from the stranger in their midst. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, pp. 427-428].

                I have tended to read the passage from the perspective of the exiles, but what if I’m the host? Can we be both guest and host at the same time, and thus be equally blessed?    

 

Come on Over – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6C (Acts 16)

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

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                The story found in the book of Acts begins with a commission in Acts 1:8. That commission involves proclaiming the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, beginning in Jerusalem, and from there, moving outward through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. The movement forward comes in fits and starts and requires guidance and regular nudges on the part of the Spirit. In Acts 9, Paul, the persecutor of the church, is called to preach, with Gentiles as his target audience. Then, in Acts 11, Peter defends his decision to go to the home of Cornelius, opening up the church to Gentiles, without qualification. That is, he baptized them without first requiring the males to be circumcised. In this action, the path forward that Paul would take is set. During this Easter season, where we focus on readings from the Book of Acts in place of the regular readings from the Hebrew Bible, the lectionary jumps from the story of Peter’s visit to Cornelius to Paul’s call to preach in Macedonia. There’s a lot of territory that is traversed between Acts 11 and Acts 16, one of which is the commissioning of Paul to take up his missionary journeys. Another event is the Jerusalem Council, at which time Paul and Barnabas explain their mission and make peace with the Jerusalem leaders on what is to be required of the new Gentile converts. When we come to Acts 16, Paul has headed out on his second missionary journey. He and Barnabas have parted ways, and Paul is joined by first Silas and then Timothy.
                The lectionary reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C) begins in verse 9 of chapter 16. If we go back a few verses, we learn that Paul had been forbidden to preach in Asia. Paul and his companions had been attempting to go to Bithynia, but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them,” so they went down to Troas. That’s where we pick things up.
Now before we get to verse 9 of chapter 16, we should take note of the message that in the Book of Acts, the Spirit is the driving force in the emerging mission of the church. In this case, the Spirit is specifically linked to Jesus. It is the Spirit of Jesus who is guiding this next step in the church’s mission, and the Spirit has a specific vision of where things should go.
                When we come to verse 9, we find Paul in Troas, on the Aegean coast. He’s sleeping, not knowing what he is supposed to do. He’s been prevented from going where he intended to go, so where to next? As he slept, he had a vision—God often speaks to people in visions in Acts, sometimes they come when people are awake and sometimes when they’re asleep. In this vision a “man of Macedonia,” speaks to Paul, saying “Come on over to Macedonia.” To this point, Paul’s ministry had been focused on “Asia,” what we would call today Anatolia or Turkey. In the story being told by Luke, the Spirit is ready to move into a new field and to cross into Macedonia would mean crossing into Europe. So, things are moving forward, toward that goal of reaching the ends of the earth.
                With this vision of the “man from Macedonia” calling Paul to come on over as their guide, the missionary group sets sail from Troas and heads for Samothrace, Neapolis, and finally to Philippi, which, according to Luke, was the “chief city of Macedonia” and a Roman colony. The reference to Philippi being a Roman colony suggests that it is a rather recently planted city, having been settled—or in this case probably re-settled—by Roman soldiers and their families. Here’s where things get interesting. Since it was Paul’s custom, as a Christian who also was a Jew, to worship on the Sabbath, he went looking for a gathering of Jews to pray with. Normally, that would involve looking for the local synagogue. That proved difficult in Philippi because there was no synagogue. What Paul did find was a gathering of women, who had gone down to the river outside the gates of the city to pray. As was his custom as well, he not only prayed with them, but he shared the Gospel with them. Among this group of women was a “worshipper of God” named Lydia. The reference to her being a worshipper of God, or God-fearer, like Cornelius, suggests that she was likely not Jewish, but one who embraced Judaism without fully converting. She was also a successful businesswoman. We’re told that she sold purple cloth, which was expensive. It was the kind of cloth used to make clothes for the wealthy and privileged. It was to this group of women, that Paul preached. They responded positively so that Paul baptized them.
                Having heard Paul preach, and having been baptized by him (along with what may have been her household), he extends to him an offer of hospitality. She says to him: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Paul couldn’t say no. He took up her offer, gratefully, I would expect.
                Often, we think of the early Christians as being poor and marginalized. Often, they were, but not all of them. In fact, we see in the Corinthian letter signs of socio-economic divisions. Such was not the case here. Lydia was likely rather wealthy, but she used her wealth in this case to benefit the ministry of Paul.  In other words, she became a partner in that ministry. The other element of this story is the fact that Paul was willing to worship with and share the message with women. We know that Paul could write instructions for women to be silent. He could also proclaim that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). In this case, we see Paul expanding the circle to include not only Gentiles but women, who become partners in ministry.
                So begins Paul’s ministry in Europe. “A man from Macedonia” invited him over to help them, but it was a woman from Thyatira, who was staying in Philippi, who would be the first person to receive the Gospel. It’s a bit like Mary Magdalene, who is the first to receive the message of the resurrection (Jn 20). And, as Alice Connors notes, regarding Lydia, “there are no heroic deeds attributed to Lydia, no wrestling an angel to receive a blessing. She went about her life, praying and listening, selling and leading” [Connor, Fierce, p. 162]. Yes, she went about her life, in fairly normal fashion, but as she did, she became a leader in the church as it spread into Europe.  All of this began in the waters of baptism, which in the book of Acts are transformative. This was true of Cornelius and his household. It was also true of Lydia and her household. So, “shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?” [Robert Lowry in Chalice Hymnal, p. 701].

 

Final Instructions: Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday

Final Instructions: Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday

1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
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                Churches that follow the Christian Year will be either observing the Seventh Sunday of Easter or the day of Ascension (which does not fall on Sunday). In either case the first reading comes from Acts 1. The text for Ascension is the first eleven verses, while the Seventh Sunday texts come from Acts 1:15-26, which contains the call of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot as the twelfth Apostle. The Matthias story is an intriguing one, but it is here in verse 8 of Acts 1 that the foundation for the Book of Acts is laid. So, I will address the first reading for the Day of Ascension.
                Luke invites us to imagine gathering with Jesus after forty days of post-Easter appearances for final instructions prior to Jesus’ physical departure from the disciples, which opens a new phase of Luke’s Gospel story. Chapter one of the Book of Acts marks a point of transition from Jesus’ earthly ministry to the Spirit-empowered mission of the church. The message for this moment in time is to “wait.” Now is the time for the Spirit of to come down upon the believers, so that they might bear witness to the Gospel, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. While it was good to be with Jesus in the flesh, it is time to leave the womb and enter the world, bearing the message of salvation.