Monday, October 14, 2013

October 13 Sermon: Serve Somebody

Jeremiah 29:7

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.

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

There is a verse, just a few lines down from the one that was read this morning, that is far more popular a verse than “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” And they don’t keep statistics on this kind of thing, I don’t think, but if they did, I would wager that it would be in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most popular verse to grace the back of junior high youth retreat t-shirts. The verse, of course, is Jeremiah 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Isn’t that lovely! The God of the Israelites has a plan for you, for me, for us. Nobody is left out, for God has a plan. It is just lovely, especially when you take it totally out of context, which we usually do, for the verse is actually not about us, but about the Israelites, and not the Israelites all the time, but in a very specific time.

Here is the context. Jeremiah is writing to people whose very lives have been ravaged by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah is not writing to just anybody.  These are people who have lost everything—their homes, their families, their livelihoods—and they have lost them to the people on whose lands they now wither in exile.  Praying for your enemies is one thing, but praying for those who torment you to thrive is something else entirely!

We forget, when we talk about God’s plans for our lives, that this whole business about a future with hope is about being sent into exile, about doing the work of taking your community out into a hostile world. God’s plan for you isn’t all cupcakes and unicorns. A future with hope is good, but it doesn’t mean you get to bypass the hard bits. It is hard work, planting, pulling up, building and serving.

We forget that the Israelites have been sent into exile, and in the midst of such heartbreak, the message from Jeremiah is not so much “be more faithful” as it is “get used to it,” and it stings a little, you know?  Only a couple of verses after the one read this morning, before we reach anything about any kind of plan to prosper and not harm, God says not to even bother trying to get out of exile, because it’s going to last seventy years, which is like forty days or forgiving seventy times seven in that what it really means is that nobody is going home for the foreseeable future, so you might as well get comfortable.  If anybody tells you different, they are false prophets, thus says the Lord.

In the midst of all that heartbreak, we look for a word of hope: any kind of out that means the exile will end, the suffering will end.

We are looking for hope, and instead, we get this: 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.

So we try. We think, wouldn’t it be lovely to do the pumpkin patch again this year, to have folks onto our campus, to invite them to church, to share a smile with them, and besides, the proceeds go to pay our mission giving and will help support the preschool that the pastor keeps talking about. Wouldn’t it be lovely?

And then there’s a tragedy, or a storm, or both, and you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Here you are, just trying to be faithful, and you get sent into exile.

A few years ago, I went on a mission trip to Henderson Settlement up in Kentucky. It’s a home repair ministry in Appalachia that helps folks who desperately need it. You know, we think about poverty a lot of times as an urban issue, but rural Appalachia is probably the closest thing to the developing world I’ve been to in the United States. Folks just don’t have anything, in some of these places, other than rotting homes, black lung from working the mines, and the church.

And so we went up there to help, a big group of my minister friends, actually, and we climbed on top of the roof and got to work. The roof over double wide that served as the woman’s home was leaking like a sieve, and the considerable number of people living inside were just getting soaked. So our plan was to screw a tin roof on top of her shingled roof, just to keep out the water and so as to not have to replace it down the road.

We spent a couple of days baking on the roof, cutting the furring strips and doing the repair, until I was standing with several of the rest of us on top of the part of the roof that covered the porch and wouldn’t you know that we heard a crack and then we rode that roof all the way to the ground.

Now, thank God nobody was underneath at the time, or this story would have a different ending, and we climbed off that roof and just stared at for what seemed like an hour, nothing to say but to silently mourn the fact that here we’d come to help this poor woman stay dry and we’d ended up giving her one heck of a skylight.

You set out to change the world, and you find yourself in exile. And, you know, when I find myself in exile, when I am so full of sorrow that I can do nothing but let my cries crawl up my throat and escape my mouth, that is when I need escape from suffering.  To this, God does not say, “be healed,” but rather, “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.”

It may not seem terribly helpful, but it is there in the Bible in Jeremiah when I am having good days, when the nice lady in the church class brings me a pie, it is there on the bad days, when everyone is still reeling from the suicide that’s just tearing one family apart, it is there when I forget my brain and when I remember to bring it with me.  No matter what we face, no matter where, God says, through Jeremiah, 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.

We know this already, of course, as a church whose reputation is built on serving others. We serve because God calls us to do it. But what I would say to you this day—and what I think Jeremiah would say as well, to speak nothing of the Lord God—is that we don’t serve others merely because we should help the less fortunate, or because it looks good, or because we feel guilt about our stations in life. We serve others because when we do this, when we serve even those whose lives look very different from our own, when we serve those who are difficult to get along with, we find our own welfare.

I don’t know what good will come of this pumpkin business, although I know that whenever a group of people gets together to pray, good will come. But I do know that it is through serving, even serving through disappointment, that you will find your welfare, that we will find it together.

I spent three years working for United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, the short-term mission agency of the United Methodist Church. As part of my time there, I wrote the team leader handbook, the book that we used to train people to lead their own mission trips. And so I have had the occasion to train a lot of mission team leaders. And at these trainings, I would share the two traits of a potential mission team member that, just about above all others, guaranteed whether the trip would be smooth sailing. The more trips I have led, the more sure I am about these traits.

The first trait was a well-developed sense of humor. Mission trips are funny. Cultural faux pas are part of the deal, and you end up talking about personal habits you wouldn’t otherwise. If you can’t laugh at your silly mistakes, you aren’t going to get along well in the mission field.

The second trait is related, and it is probably even more important. The best, most well-adjusted mission team members with whom I have ever served are really good at failing. They fail well. They realize—and this is my experience—it is incredibly rare to set out on a mission trip and accomplish everything you set out to accomplish. I’ve been involved with plenty of these kinds of experiences, and never once have I done all I set out to do. In a way, each of these trips was an utter failure.

I think back on that mission trip to Kentucky, and how it was a colossal failure. But, of course, we did not leave the roof laying on the ground. We got out the reciprocating saw and we cut the roof over the porch into manageable chunks, we carried it out piece by piece, and we built a new roof, stronger, with no leaks.

And not only did we build that woman a new roof: we gave her hope, we modeled the kingdom of God, we met people who blessed us and though the week did not go as we planned, we found our welfare.

It has been this way on every mission trip, on every service project I’ve ever been involved with. I have NEVER ended up doing everything I set out to do. I have never served and felt like I accomplished everything that needed to be done, but of course, the business of serving is not about me so much as it about others, about God, and it is helpful to be reminded now and again that God accepts our offerings of service, even when they seem like utter failures.

It is this way for those who are serving today at Trinity Table. They will not solve the problem of homelessness today. They will see familiar faces, those who were there months before, the last time they shared a sandwich and a smile with that group of folks. But we do not serve in order to fix, for in the final analysis it is God that does the fixing. We serve to share a deep part of ourselves with others, and with God.

And In serving others, we discover something deep within ourselves that springs from God’s own self, and we are reminded that we are here on earth for a purpose, that our existence is not an accident, that to know Christ is to serve others, for truly, God has a plan for us, a plan to prosper and not to harm, to give us a future with hope. On days when the exile almost seems to be too much, let us hold on to this great hope, for even if it doesn’t seem like it, people are watching us, all around, people see us walk out the doors of this church and want to know if we are who we say we are.

If we are who we say we are, of course, we’ll find ourselves working for the welfare of all those around us, working for the good of the place in which we find ourselves in exile, for in working for the good of all those around us, we’ll find ourselves blessed. That is a promise I can get behind. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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