Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019 – Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 – Trinity, Winchester
Let’s look at today’s collect again.
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works…
“That we may continually be given to good works.” That’s a good thing to pray for. We should do good work—God’s work—in the world.
But lest we get too caught up in the idea that our works might be the source of our salvation, this prayer first calls our attention to the source of our good works: God’s grace. We pray for God’s grace to precede and follow us because grace is precisely what makes our good works possible.
The order is very important. God’s grace comes first. Our works follow. When you look at it that way, it makes life seem so much more manageable, doesn’t it?
In our Sunday School series on evangelism last spring we said that the mission of the Church is God’s mission. The work of reconciliation in the world is God’s work. The ministry of this parish is God’s ministry. We are able to share in it because God empowers us with his grace.
God was here before us, and God will be here long after we go. We are God’s coworkers on earth for a time, but God’s grace lasts forever.
We heard this morning a portion of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Israelites in 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.”
In other words, Jeremiah encourages them to put down roots, as if to say, “You are in this for the long haul.”
Last week we got a sense of just how devastated the Israelites were to find themselves in captivity. I can’t imagine that “put down roots” is what they wanted to hear. But prophets aren’t in the business of telling people what they want to hear. Prophets are in the business of telling the truth.
People want to hear things like, “Everything’s coming up roses!” But we don’t need the prophet to tell us, “Everything’s coming up roses!” When everything’s coming up roses we are pleased to go on listening to CNN and the local Top 40 station.
What we need to hear are things like, “Brace yourself, folks. Things are going to get tough for a while.” That’s why God sends a prophet. To be honest, to “get real” with us when we need it most.
God sends a prophet to the woman whose husband comes out to her after eight years of marriage. God sends a prophet to the man whose job transfers him away from friends and family. God sends a prophet to the teenager whose father is sentenced to 10-12 years.
It doesn’t do any good avoiding the truth. Things are going to get tough for a while. Your marriage is ending. You may spend Christmas alone. Dad’s not going to be around for a while.
You don’t have to like it, but in order to have the slightest hope of getting through it, you do eventually have to accept it. That’s why you need a prophet like Jeremiah to tell it like it is.
Jeremiah tells the Israelites to go on living their lives. Lay a foundation, put up some walls, plant some food, get married, have babies. In short, do the work God has given you to do. It’s not ideal, but it’s the first step toward accepting their new normal.
Let’s get really clear about one thing. Their daily life and work is not meant to be a distraction from their troubles. “Well, this will take your mind off of things for a while… Have a hot bath, take a walk in the woods, get one of those adult coloring books.”
No. The work isn’t a diversion. The work is their key to reconnecting with God. As they resume their routine they will reminded of God’s presence among them.
Build the house. Who fashioned the stones from chaos? God.
Plant the garden. Who sends the rain form the heavens? God.
Get married. Who created us, one for another? God.
Be fruitful and multiply. Who blessed all of Abraham’s righteous offspring? God.
The work is meant to return them to the steady rhythm of life so that they might realize once again that God’s grace is what makes their lives possible, even in Babylon.
Life isn’t always easy. Even though we may not like it, we have to summon up the courage to accept it. Sometimes we need to be reminded that getting out of bed in the morning and going on with our lives is the best thing we can do. Because it’s in living those lives that we find the grace of God.
I know a little church in a small Tennessee town. Maybe you know it, too. It has been through some pretty rough times. One day nearly the entire congregation walked out. They thought they’d set up a new parish down the road.
I’ve never been part of a church when something like that happens so I can only imagine the lament. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to walk into a nearly-empty nave the following Sunday.
I don’t know exactly what the faithful remanent heard the prophet say. Probably not “build houses” or “plant gardens.” I imagine it was something like “say your prayers, answer the phone, pay the bills. Do the work God had given you to do.”
I know another little congregation at a small rural crossroads not far from here. It struggled with membership for years. Members died, members moved away, members stopped coming. There were some disagreements, some harsh words, some apologies, a lot of mixed emotions.
They also heard the words of the prophet. “Things are going to be tough for a while. You might have to make some hard decisions. Do the work God has given you to do.”
By God’s grace the people of these congregations did just that. They prayed, they worshipped, they studied the Bible, they took care of the sick, they fed the hungry, they clothed the naked. In fact, they still do. And by God’s grace they always will.