Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
“The Welfare of the City”
There are special Scripture readings in the lectionary for Thanksgiving Sunday, but I don’t always use them. Sometimes, like this year, I just stick with the readings for this 18th Sunday after Pentecost. I love the fact that today’s Gospel story about the ten people who are healed and the one who returns to praise God and thank Jesus just happens to fall on Thanksgiving Sunday. Christians around the world, most of whom are not celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend like Canadians, are nonetheless reflecting on this story about giving thanks.
But of course, there’s more to the Gospel story today than a reminder to be polite and say thank you when someone helps you out. There’s a message about Jesus crossing boundaries and helping people that would normally be ignored and avoided by others. There’s the wonder of God’s healing power that not only cures illness, but restores us to community. And perhaps most important, there’s the fact that the one who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan. He was considered an outsider first for his ethnicity and then for his skin condition, but here he becomes an example of faith and wholeness of life.
Meanwhile, today’s text from the Prophet Jeremiah continues the theme from the last several weeks of telling us about the People of Judah and Jerusalem living in Exile in Babylon. It’s not exactly a context in which they are likely to be giving thanks.
Their city and temple have been conquered and destroyed. They’re living in a strange place, among people, and languages, and customs that they don’t understand. They are the outsiders here, the ones who are looked down upon and derided. And some days it feels like their God has abandoned them too.
But God continues to speak to the Exiles and to help them through their predicament, even if God doesn’t just scoop them up and return them home. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God instructs them: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”
One commentator calls this advice “a radical, countercultural strategy of nonviolent social resistance in the face of opposition and oppression.” Rather than running from their Babylonian enemies or trying to revolt against them, they are told to simply reside among them.
By telling the Exiles to live, God is telling them to resist the allure of succumbing to their feelings of despair, dismay, depression, and numbness. To make the best of a bad situation. To try to move forward and survive.
Don’t just grit your teeth and endure being in this place of exile, but make a home here. Go ahead and live where you have found yourselves. Settle down, work, play, have families, and grow your community. To do otherwise would be to give up and allow your People to be completely wiped out by the Babylonians. But if you choose to live, then you will also survive, perhaps even thrive, even in this far-away land that you would not have chosen.
But there’s a second part to the instructions too, that begins with that word, “but.” The Prophet tells them to go about living their lives, BUT there is something more that they must do: “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.”
If you remember that these Exiles are in a city surrounded by their enemies, the Babylonians who conquered their People and destroyed their own city and temple, it’ll be clear that this is a big ask, a “but” that is difficult to accept.
Later, in the Gospels, we’ll hear Jesus exhorting his followers to “love their enemies” and it isn’t the first time that God encouraged God’s people to enact this demanding kind of love – calling them to set aside feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness, and choose to act in love in spite of it all, seeking the welfare of their neighbours, whether they deserve it or not.
I don’t know what the Exiles will do to show love for their enemies, pray for and seek the welfare of their neighbours. After all, they probably don’t have a lot of resources. Nor do they have the power and privilege that would make helping others easy.
But I imagine it like Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan – someone on the outside taking every opportunity to help and care for someone in trouble. He doesn’t worry about WHO it is that needs help. He simply does what he can as a neighbour.
Of course, our context is somewhat different. Most of us probably chose to live in this city that we call home. Some have been here for generations, some have chosen this place and moved here from other parts of Canada (like me), and some have come from other parts of the world, finding in Regina a place of safety and opportunity for a new life.
Our diverse neighbours in this place are not our enemies, though we could admit that we do have our divides, whether political, cultural, or even religious. And in this generation, we must come to realize that those who are actively involved in living according to the Christian faith are no longer the majority or the privileged insiders. Or if we still benefit from some privilege, like the fact that most of our religious festivals are still public holidays for everyone, that likely won’t be the case for much longer.
I expect that this weekend, most Christians, along with most Canadians, are focussed on living and enjoying their lives. Many will gather in our homes with families and friends. We’ll share food and give thanks for the blessings of our lives in this place.
Some are even missing from our worship this morning because they’ve travelled to spend time with family somewhere else. When I was walking yesterday, I encountered a grandmother with a group of kids outside her house. I could tell from the conversation that they were not one nuclear family, but a gathering of her grandchildren – cousins playing happily together on this long weekend. I thought, “She must be really enjoying life right now, as she watches her family growing.”
But like the Exiles, we’re not only encouraged to live and to increase in number. We’re also called to seek the welfare of the city where we live. We’re challenged to love our neighbours, and to show love for them whether or not we feel love for them.
Perhaps that means that when you share around the table this weekend about what you are thankful for, you might also consider what you could do together to share your abundance with neighbours in need. Perhaps there is something you could do this weekend to reach out to someone who might be alone, or sad, or struggling, even if that person is not your best friend.
The instruction also reminds me a lot of some of the things we’ve been learning about what it means for a church to be missional in this day and age. Yes, we are definitely supposed to live together as a community of faith – worshipping, studying the Scriptures, praying for one another, helping each other, and sharing food and fellowship.
But, we are also supposed to seek the welfare of the city where we live, to pray for our neighbours, and contribute to the welfare of all. New missional perspectives are encouraging congregations not to “try to grow” by doing everything we can to attract people to our wonderful churches. Instead, we’re invited to pay attention to the neighbours around us, getting to know and appreciate them, and offering what we can to work with them for the good of the whole community.
Through the Centre for Missional Leadership at St. Andrew’s Hall in Vancouver, a group of First Church elders has just begun participating in a training program to help us consider how we might do this kind of missional work in our neighbourhood through our church.
Not that it is completely new to us. We’ve been doing this kind of work for years through our support of local schools, the food bank, and various local missions. We’ve been leaders in starting the Saturday bag lunch program that is offered at First Baptist Church every weekend. And our commitment to welcoming refugees to our community is strong, as we stand ready at this time to offer hospitality to the Mathiang/Thiey family any time now.
I wonder, though, what God may be calling us to do next. I wonder how God will inspire us to seek the welfare of our city. And I wonder, with hope and expectation, how through the welfare of our neighbours we will also discover our own.