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Building for the Future

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How do we live under real or metaphorical exile? Do we adapt or do we resist? How do we hang on to what are our essential beliefs when those beliefs are not shared by those in power or those who live around us?

Today’s texts: Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7 and 2 Timothy 2: 8-15

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

It was not a happy time for the Israelites living in exile that Jeremiah was addressing in that first scripture reading today. They had been taken from their homes, from their religious institutions, from their livelihoods, from any sense of normalcy to a strange land.

Some of you may recall the first words of Psalm 137, a poignant psalm of lament:
By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

babylonFor there our captors  asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

They were disoriented, without any sense of what the future might hold.

They were hardly the only people in history to feel that way.

Think about the men and women from African captured, loaded on boats and shipped like cargo across the ocean to work on the plantations and in the towns that would become America.

Think about the refugees from Syria, in danger at home, unwanted elsewhere.

Think, on a less physically terrifying scale but still disorienting, of all the tensions playing out in our nation today.

How do we live under real or metaphorical exile? Do we adapt or do we resist?

How do we hang on to what are our essential beliefs when those beliefs are not shared by those in power or those who live around us?

Jeremiah’s advice seems to be to just settle in and make the best of it.

“Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. “

Easy for him to say living back there in Jerusalem. But perhaps he had a point. Perhaps he recognized that there was no easy out for those in exile and that they ought to leave their tears at the river and get on with their lives.

Mitri Raheb at UCC General Synod in 2015
Mitri Raheb at UCC General Synod in 2015

Mitri Raheb, our pastoral partner at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, knows something about this.

He lives in a town under occupation, hemmed in by the security wall that Israel built, subject to incursions by the Israeli military, bordering overcrowded refugee settlements that date back to the early 1950s after the Israeli troops first took control of the land.

Now it is the Palestinians – Christians and Muslims and those of no particular religious faith – who live in exile, who shed tears, whose anger wishes bad things for the Israelis, much as the Israelites in exile in Babylon wished bad things on their captors – which is why Jeremiah advised them to go against the grain and pray for the welfare of the place where they lived. No advice here to flee to Canada or go to Australia. Work on improving the place where you are.

It is in this setting in the West Bank that Mitri has tried to create an alternative future for the people of Bethlehem. He has led efforts to build schools that range from kindergarten through college. He and his colleagues have fostered arts, put together a championship soccer team, helped young Palestinians both envision and prepare for a future very different from the present they know.

This might seem like an odd scripture reading to have on a Sunday when we are celebrating the confirmation of three of our young people. They live in a beautiful place, attend good schools, have caring parents and they have futures that are wide open to them.

Yet they too live in a world filled with challenges and we look to them to help build a future not only for themselves but for their generation and the generations to come.

The words from the letter to Timothy are reminder that this is not always easy.

“Remember Jesus Christ,” the letter says, “raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.”

Think about those words – “the gospel for which I suffer hardship.” Trying to live following the way of Jesus is filled with challenges.

One of the challenges is figuring out just what it means to follow Jesus.

Another is being willing to do things that seem to go against the grain, you know, like loving enemies or embracing despised neighbors or living as if in Christ, there is no longer male or female, Jew or Greek, slave nor free. Those kinds of ideas can get us in trouble.

A few weeks ago, I had an amazing opportunity to hear John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader who was beaten and jailed in the 1960s in the struggle for freedom for African Americans. He knew what it was like to be chained for the sake of the Gospel. And he showed what it is like to work not only to end oppression but to transform the oppressors.

When our students today are confirmed as followers of Jesus, as members of the community of Memorial, they join the rest of us in trying
to create a better place in whatever setting we are in,
to hold on to our beliefs in the midst of others who may not share them,
to risk our comfort in the process and
to transform those around us even as we are transformed ourselves.

No small task. Not for our confirmands. Not for any of us. That’s why we trust in God’s grace and look out for one another.