Sermon: Seek the Welfare
Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Matthew 22:34-40; photos from 2016 sabbatical
Date: October 9, 2016
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
What you see here is a “living stump.” Although most stumps we see are dead, this one—located in Oregon—is connected underground with the root systems of nearby living trees that are feeding it nutrients, keeping it alive, though greatly changed and reduced.
The Israelites exiled to Babylon in Jeremiah’s day had been cut off from their homeland. It probably felt like the end of the world to them. They may have thought they were dying out as a people, far from home and Temple. That’s the situation into which the prophet sends his letter, giving revolutionary advice. The people were advised to establish homes and gardens, bring up their families. And they were to seek the welfare of the place to which God had sent them as exiles. “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.” God was asking them to maintain their faith in that place, and to actively work for the good of the community in which they found themselves. If they were to do these things, they would not die even though they were much changed.
Putting down roots and seeking the welfare of their captors would nourish the community of faith during the generation or two they were exiled. Being rooted and grounded in God’s love and love of neighbor would keep them connected to life-giving nurturance through connections unseen in a foreign land.
One of the commentaries I have on this text suggests that the Western Church is experiencing a kind of exile itself. The church of the West doesn’t have the power and influence it once had in the society at large. The Mainline Protestant church in the U.S. and Europe continues to shrink; the United Church of Christ, for example, has shrunk in membership by about 50% since I was ordained in 1985. Plenty of folks wonder whether the Christian church as it once existed is dying, or as good as dead.
Is the church only a skeleton of itself, moribund yet improbably still standing, while the world passes us by?
Not dead yet! That is apparent enough from this lively worship gathering and the many activities swirling around this locality. Nevertheless, it is worth mulling over the potential end of even a beloved institution like this one. Our evening Bible study is reading Ecclesiastes. One of the sayings we read this week advised people (paraphrasing freely) to go to a funeral rather than a pub if you want to be wise. That wise curmudgeon Qoheleth thinks people should always keep their death in view, not to hide from its inevitability. I understand that the early monks, living in their caves to contemplate God, made it a practice to dig a shovelful of their own grave before lying down to sleep at night. Remember: only God is immortal. It’s possible that musing on the possible end of our way of doing church will help keep us from actually going over the edge of the cliff.
I don’t believe our church is dead or dying. I do believe we are going through a season of change. Some old ideas and practices are falling away, and we hope new ones are emerging. We are swept up in cultural changes that are much bigger than this little old church on the corner, carried into a kind of exile against our will. It’s vital that we continue to evolve, that we look ahead for what’s next.
Even if the old growth is cut down, something new can grow out of what was, as long as we don’t remain fixated on the past.
We’re rooted in enduring traditions, ways of thinking, ways of being church.
We can celebrate old, sturdy traditions and practices that have grounded us in years past. But we should also acknowledge that old practices can become a weight bearing down on a person or community.
This Rodin sculpture portrays a person weighed down by an impossible burden. The artist was sculpting a person in purgatory carrying the weight of their sin. This could be Church, overburdened with the traditions of the past, bent over, immobile.
The old paths can become decrepit, even unsafe.
General Minister and President of the UCC John Dorhauer lifts up one of the old ways as an example, saying that churches measuring their achievements strictly by the metrics of budgets and membership numbers is a dead end. All this road leads to in the current era is fear and blame.
He shares an inspiring message from another UCC leader, Ben Guess, who proposed a more appropriate metric, borrowed from (of all places) McDonalds—measuring the church’s success by the number of people served. What if churches kept a running tally like McDonald’s used to—how many people were served by our church this week?
This is about more than attending to the complex and beautiful ways in which the lives of those who are already here in the worshiping community are interwoven. The ways we take care of each other are part of our calling as a congregation, but this can’t be the only reason we exist.
It’s about more than preserving, polishing and translating the gospel; nurturing the habit of worship, and engaging in the sheer pleasure of studying religion. While we consider Christian faith a great gift and a precious treasure, we have a more expansive calling than preservation.
The church was birthed for mission. We take the treasure of faith—static in itself– and embody it in mission. Faith is nothing but a museum piece if it is not wrapped in flesh and taken out into the world.
What is our mission? That is the key question, and more difficult than you might think to answer. John Dorhauer’s book Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World points out that too many churches have fallen into the pattern of putting all their energy into having enough people to fund the budget so they can maintain the building and pay the staff. He writes, “Mission has become, for many churches, what gets done with the money left over after all the bills have been paid.” And when funds get tight, the mission money gets cut. Dorhauer says he walks into church after church asking them what their mission is and with very few exceptions, he gets confused answers. “It isn’t so much that they don’t know what their mission is. It is much more the case that they don’t realize it is imperative or necessary to have one.”
The theme for today in the worship series we’re following is “Give me open hands and open doors.” I think we have open hands and open doors. But I’m not sure we are entirely clear about what we are using open hands for. We have lots of things going on, but our energy is diffuse and our identity is a bit fuzzy around the edges. If John Dorhauer was here asking what our mission is, we might be one of many churches who would give a “confused” answer.
Dorhauer gives a thumbnail sketch of a mature and vital church in the Southwest Conference of the UCC that is clear about their mission. In a worship service he attended, the pastor stated—as he probably did each week—“We are a church on the border, called to serve the immigrant.” Everyone in the full church knew this, seeing this mission as the reason God called them to be a church in the desert. Every day they send out jeeps with volunteers to drive through the desert, looking for migrants who might be dying of thirst as they attempt to immigrate in search of a better life for their families. They place water in the desert. They negotiate differences between immigrants and the border patrol. They hold workshops and seminars on border politics and policies. They sit in courtrooms when migrants are processed through the judicial system. They advocate for change among policy makers. This is a church that knows and embraces its mission.
I likewise found in my sabbatical explorations that the churches with a clear sense of their mission drew on a deep well of vitality that churches who were not so clear lack. The churches that have figured out a direction for their mission and ministry that has a focus beyond their survival as an institution have an undeniable energy.
During the Spring, I interviewed 30 pastors and worshiped in 18 churches. Here are a few that stand out in terms of having discerned a focus for their mission. The Episcopal Church in Sequim, whose congregation is mostly retired, has made feeding people a priority. They installed a commercial kitchen and host a regular community meal. They raise money and collect food for the food bank and for global projects aimed at feeding people. They sent volunteers to a summer lunch program for children at four different sites throughout the summer. I think they have embraced the idea—symbolized in this Native American potlach bowl—that the Kingdom of God is a feast.
The West Pointe Gray United Church of Canada congregation has responded to the changing demographics in their neighborhood by calling a minister dedicated to inter-cultural program coordination, reaching out to the Chinese immigrants in their part of Vancouver. They’ve sponsored an ESL program for 15 years, and are constantly going deeper in the conversation about what it means to be neighbors.
Holy Cross Episcopal church in Redmond has gotten into farming.
This farm on Whidbey Island is standing in for their acreage leased in the Snoqualmie valley. Each summer they grow tons of vegetables for the food bank while teaching members of their congregation and visitors about growing food and nurturing healthy soil.
St. Andrews United Church in Vancouver is, among other things, hosting a very open meditation service Sunday evenings, designed to provide sanctuary to all sorts of post-modern seekers. This is the gracious message next to the candle-lighting station in the sanctuary.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Eugene (tagline: “The Heart of Eugene”) has hosted an interfaith prayer service on the 11th of every month ever since 9/11/2001. One Muslim faith leader mistakenly called them the Interfaith church—revealing the depth of their commitment to good neighboring. Even more central to their mission is their work with homeless people. They house several homeless people on their church property, have developed a Good Samaritan ministry to help with immediate needs, and have released half of their lead pastor’s time to work with a housing non-profit building tiny houses for the homeless folks around Eugene.
I could go on about other inspiring ministries, but this is enough of a sample. My quest in this season of our life together as a church is explore whether we might find a more distinct focus for our mission. How do we actively seek the welfare of the community in which we are rooted? What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves in this place? What do our neighbors need from us at this time?
I’m wondering if we can discern and name together how God is calling us to the path ahead. I’m encouraging everyone to get involved in a discernment process. The beginning of the process has to be becoming still and listening—listening for the Spirit’s direction through prayer and reflection.
The other sort of becoming still and listening is attending to the cries of our neighbors, whether they are human or non-human cries for love and healing. As this work of art titled “Oil Spill” suggests, Earth and its people are suffering and need of tangible expressions of God’s love.
I invite you now to symbolize your willingness to participate in this process of discernment by coming to one of the tables and choosing a glass stone. You can pick it randomly or choose one with an image or symbol that calls out to you. There are more eyes than anything else, because this is the time to be looking for our next evolution, seeing the Spirit at work in us and among us and around us. Pick a stone and keep it with you for a few weeks as a reminder to join with this prayerful discernment about the next season of our life together. While you come, we’ll play a version of “Be Thou My Vision.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyYRsVEyTPs
I took this picture on the beach below my home in the early summer:
Flame rendered in seaweed! It made me think of the Spirit’s holy fire, which I believe is active in this place we call home. Our task is to open our eyes to the work of the Spirit and align ourselves with it. Discernment may be slow work, and that’s OK. I’m inviting you with great hope to trust this process. Hear these words of Teilhard de Chardin:
“Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that…[God’s] hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
We are incomplete, but the God who began a good work in this church clear back in 1882 will bring it to completion, doing more in us and through us than all we could ask or imagine. Who knows where the road will lead? Let us go forward in faith, hope and love.
 Dorhauer, John C. Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015, p. 34