Year C, Pentecost 21
One of the things I did to prepare for my final interview with the search committee was to read the history book that was written about St. John’s, How Firm a Foundation. I learned some interesting tidbits. Did you know that in the early church, you could be arrested for not attending church on Sunday? I found this rather appealing. It puts a lot less pressure on the preacher when the alternative to a riveting Sunday sermon is jail. The other, less appealing, historical fact was that the clergy were paid in tobacco. That seems like a good tradition to let go of. What I found particularly fascinating was how integral the town was to the church and the church was to the town. Everyone who lived in the town of Hampton were members of St. John’s. This is primarily because it was the only established church in the area and because it was an English colony, there was only one option as far as what denomination to be part of. It was Church of England. However, this could not last forever. That pesky revolution made a church founded by the King of England less appealing to a people who just proclaimed their freedom from the King of England. Furthermore, it was no longer the only church in town. There were other options.
I found this idea of a prominent and dominant church attractive to some degree because the only way I have ever known the Episcopal Church was as the underdog. I became Episcopalian in 2003 when the most recent major exodus from the Episcopal Church began. It was a strange time to become Episcopalian and more than one person asked why I was jumping on a sinking ship. The reality is that there were very few Christian denominations prospering at that time, and unfortunately, that trend has not reversed in the last 10 years. The Episcopal Church went from being the church of a nation, to being the church that people of our nation no longer have time for. At one time it was illegal not to attend church. Now, it feels almost un-American to be a committed Christian. We are living in a post Christian world, and as a priest, I find that a little terrifying.
Jeremiah knew what it was to be on a sinking ship. For a good portion of his prophetic career, Jeremiah had been telling the people of Israel that they would be destroyed; that their great nation, which was once favored and protected by God, would be defeated by Babylonia. Yet no one would listen to him. He was not part of the religious establishment. He was an outsider. Biblical scholars believe that he was probably illiterate and had no formal education. And here he was telling the powers that be that they were in the wrong and would be judged for it. As you can imagine, he was not a very popular guy. In chapter 20 he was put in the stocks. In chapter 26, they tried to put him to death. In chapter 37 he was imprisoned and later thrown into a well. The Babylonians determined him to be so inconsequential that when they invaded, they just left him in Jerusalem. He wasn’t worth deporting.
Even after the exile, when Jeremiah was left with the remnant in Jerusalem, he did not stop prophesizing. And unfortunately for him and the people, his prophesies did not get any more optimistic. In the chapter preceding our reading for today, another prophet told the people that the Lord would deliver them from Babylon in only two years. They just had to hang on for two more years. (That is the same length of time you had an interim.) This was good news, news that the people wanted to hear. But then, Jeremiah came back and told them this prophet was wrong and that it would really be 70 years. No wonder they threw him in a well.
The reading for today from Jeremiah is a bit of a puzzler. It’s not angry. It’s not sad. It’s almost a little hopeful, which is odd considering they are on the precipice of 70 years of exile. The people he is talking to are those who have been exiled to Babylon; the people important enough to be deported and the same people who had tried to put Jeremiah to death. They were the religious establishment who never accepted him. While they never accepted him, he never gave up on them, because God never gave up on them.
The people were still intent on returning to Jerusalem, convinced that this exile would be short lived. The message that Jeremiah sent them probably seemed very strange to them. He said, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters….” In other words, get comfortable, you are going to be there for a while. Jeremiah knew that they would be there for 70 years, more than a generation. Most of those hearing Jeremiah’s message would die in that foreign land.
People perceived this message from Jeremiah to be a betrayal of the God of Jerusalem, the one true God. To build homes in Babylon was to assimilate, to forget their home and their people. ..forget who they were and most importantly their God.
In the modern church, there always seems to be this tension between assimilating to the culture while also maintaining the rich traditions that make our church great. There are some of us who are afraid that when we accommodate the culture, we become a slave to the culture, we let the culture define the faith as opposed to the faith defining the culture. I can empathize with that fear. The church should be counter cultural. We should be Jeremiah, telling people what they do not want to hear, even when that makes us unpopular. But even Jeremiah knew that there came a point when it became counterproductive to spend too much time longing for the greatness of the past, instead of planting new gardens that would bear new fruit.
Another thing I learned in reading How Firm a Foundation, was that this site where St. John’s is located is the 4thsite. The first three sites, while good buildings for the time they were built, could not last for more than a couple of years/decades. When this building was built, it was built to last, last for centuries. It has despite several wars and numerous hurricanes. These walls were meant to remain, meant to withstand fires, wars, flooding, and construction. But St. John’s the community—the community of disciples of Christ-should be a community with walls that are flexible, or better yet no walls at all. We should be a community that welcomes the stranger and proclaims the Good News of God in Christ. And we might have to package that news differently than before. But guess what, the Good News of God in Christ, it does not need walls. It does not even need a package or our protection. It is strong enough to withstand the winds and wars of our culture, but only if we the people are willing to make it accessible to the people who have not had the gift of growing up in a church…in this church.
I have only served as your rector for less than a week. Already, I have been so impressed by the generosity, the abundant love of the people of St. John’s. I have seen people go above and beyond to care for others. What impressed me in the interview process was how much the search committee loved St. John’s. I saw God’s hand in the history of St. John’s, the survival of St. John’s. I want people outside the church to see what I have seen, and what many of you have experienced.
Like the people Jeremiah preached to, we are a people who are exiled, not because we have been deported to another country, but because the country around us, the culture around us has changed so much; most people outside the church no longer know who we are or what we stand for. So we have to plant new gardens. We have to build our family, not by getting married and having children (although that is one method) but by reaching beyond the walls. We can do it together.