The prophet cries out to us through generations of sacred text:
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…” (Jer. 29:7)
There were two parts of Jeremiah’s letter that kept catching my attention this past week. The first, was to “seek the welfare of the place where you are at.”
Seek the welfare of the place where you are at. As an adjective, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes “welfare” as “… relating to, or concerned with welfare and especially with improvement of the welfare of disadvantaged social groups.” Merriam-Webster lists as synonyms to welfare the words good, interest, and well-being.
This past Monday, October 14, we celebrated Wisconsin’s first official Indigenous People’s Day. And while this was a first for our state, South Dakota has been observing Indigenous People’s Day since 1990. In response Jeremiah’s call today to seek the welfare of the place where we are at, let us take a moment and recognize the land on which our church is located. On this day we acknowledge that the building in which we now sit was once the land of a variety of Native peoples: at times the Peoria lived here, as did the Sauk, the Ho-Chunk, and the Sioux. Let us remember their stewardship and sacred connections with this place.
I also think that it is important for us, as a congregation who has been purposely studying and talking about the Doctrine of Discovery this past year, to remember the role that Christianity has had in the forced exile and genocide of the people native to this land. The United Church of Christ notes that having given rise to the Doctrine, “Christianity (played) a significant religious aspect… (as) Non-Christian [Indigenous] peoples were not considered to have the same rights to land, sovereignty, and self-determination as Christians…”
We also need to acknowledge our own denomination’s historical role. We, the United Church of Christ, trace branches of our DNA to the Pilgrims and Puritans. It is because of this truth that the UCC encourages us to be aware:
“As we learn about the doctrine of discovery: the genocide of native peoples, the dispossession that generations have sustained as their lands were stolen, their languages destroyed, and their culture appropriated by European settlers, it can trigger different emotional responses in those of us whose ancestors are immigrants, voluntary or enslaved, to this continent.” Today we note that our standard of living is directly related to the resources and friendship of the people native to this place.
And then there is the second part of the reading that caught my attention—“These are the words of the prophet Jeremiah…” Thus says God, build, live, plant, eat, grow, seek, pray, find. Life has unraveled, but I, God am weaving something new. And sometimes, we do find ourselves right in the midst of “IT”. Sometimes, it is hard to see the beginning… or the end… of the unraveling. Sometimes, we are thrust so deeply into the middle of the story, we can’t even describe exactly where we are, or how we got here. Sometimes, the BIG STUFF happening around us is so convoluted we crave something… anything… that will reassure us. Some sort of guidance, a GPS point, a beacon planted that clearly marks “You are HERE.” We long for any thread of hope to ground us when everything else has gone awry.
Jeremiah’s letter is packed with words of transformation. A Holy Re-Imagining of God here. God now. And this is not what the people who were forced into exile, who found themselves in a foreign country with different languages, different customs, different foods, had previously imagined. Jeremiah wrote to people who found themselves in a time, in a place, at a moment in history they did not want to be. How had things gone so terribly wrong? They were asking themselves, “How did we get HERE?”
Everything had unraveled.
That is where we are today. And this is an all too familiar place. A place in which people, and wider communities, have found themselves throughout time. It is HERE, in the upheaval, that Jeremiah plops us down into the middle of a story. After all, these people were the Israelites. They identified as God’s chosen people. Their ancestors had been led by Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, out of Egypt into the promised land. Israel. Judah. Over time the people had settled down. They built the Temple in Jerusalem, a place for God to settle down. The Temple was a place for God to live.
Around 722 BCE, the Assyrian empire had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Now, the smaller southern kingdom of Judah had been overcome by the Babylonians. It was 586-7 BCE. King Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed Jerusalem. The leading citizens of Jerusalem were taken to the Empire’s capital of Babylonia. In II Kings, we read that thousands, up to 10,000 people, were forced into exile. The poor and the common people were left behind in Jerusalem. Judah was defeated. This was a time when the people’s understanding of “gods” was that gods protected empires.
This led the people to struggle with their understanding of God. Why had God allowed the destruction of Israel and Judah? How had things gone so terribly wrong?
And this is what interests me. It is in this place of upheaval that Jeremiah proclaims a totally new idea. A radical re-visioning of who God is, and where God is, and how God calls us into community. Jeremiah reshapes our vision of God. This is a transformational “ah-ha” moment that re-imagines God. Suddenly, God was not just to be found in the Temple in Jerusalem. This God did not require—had never required—the people to go to the Temple on the mount for worship. This crisis, this chaos of being overrun by the Babylonians did not mean that God had been defeated, or that God had deserted them. However, it did mean that God had more to reveal…
So it is in response to Jeremiah’s calling out to build, live, plant, eat, grow, seek, pray, and find, that we come to this day of embracing how we Be Church. How because of YOU our church changes lives through children… through youth… through cross-generational faith formation… this is “where” we are as we listen to Jeremiah’s words. This prophet who radically re-imaged God as a God With Us. A God that, no matter how horribly life has unraveled, is weaving together something new through our building and living, planting and eating, growing and seeking, praying and finding.
This is OUR transformational “ah-ha” moment. Because THIS folks, this is Faith Formation! Our day-to-day, interwoven engagement with the Holy. Several years ago at the Wisconsin Conference UCC’s Annual Meeting, every chair in our gathering space, hundreds of chairs, had a bright yellow reminder: EVERYTHING is faith formation. Yes, there is worship. Yes, there is Sunday School. And confirmation. And bible study.
And yet there is also so much more! SO MUCH more of God, with God, in the ordinary, often chaotic, rhythm of our lives. It is all… our building and living, our planting and eating, our growing and seeking, our praying and finding… EVERYTHING is faith formation! Everything provides opportunities to encounter God. It is ALL about seeking the welfare of the community around us. From the community of YOU at which I am looking out at today, to the community of US who gets together for care visits, CROP walks, Bible study, committee meetings, in the upcoming week. It includes the community of NEIGHBORS with whom we work and study, collaborate and plan, serve and advocate alongside. THIS is where God is weaving us together, even as it seems like the threads of our lives are falling apart.
Because of YOU, this church changes lives.
People of God, can I get an Amen?
Reflection on Jeremiah 29:1-7 offered October 20, 2019
 “Welfare.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed October 19, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/welfare#synonyms.
 Willingham, AJ. “These States and Cities Are Ditching Columbus Day to Observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day Instead.” CNN. Cable News Network, October 14, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/22/us/indigenous-peoples-day-columbus-day-trnd/index.html.
 “UCC Files.” UCC Files. Accessed October 19, 2019. http://uccfiles.com/pdf/Rethinking-Columbus-Day-A.pdf.
 October 17, 2019 at 6:00 PM, and 2019 at 5:05 PM October 17. “The Reformation in England.” United Church of Christ. Accessed October 19, 2019. https://www.ucc.org/about-us_short-course_the-reformation-in-england.
 October 17, 2019 at 6:00 PM, and 2019 at 5:05 PM October 17. “The Doctrine of Discovery: Why It Still Matters Today.” United Church of Christ. Accessed October 19, 2019. https://www.ucc.org/justice_getting-to-the-root-of-it_the-doctrine-of-discovery.