Monday, October 10, 2022

Francis & Jeremiah: Rebuild My Church, Rebuild My Earth

 Sermon preached on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, also celebrated as St. Francis' Day:  Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19

          The man we know as St. Francis was like many young men of his social class at the turn of the 13th century. His father was a prosperous merchant and Francis had all the fun he could have off that wealth. When his city went to war with the neighboring city of Perugia, he signed up for the glory of it.

           Only he did not find glory there.  Instead, he was captured and imprisoned. Eventually his father paid his ransom, but something had begun to happen to Francis.  He developed compassion for the poor of Assisi and especially the lepers who lived outside the city gate, people who were perpetual outcasts, feared and detested.

           One day, still trying to figure himself out, Francis Was wandering around the countryside. He came across an abandoned church, St. Damiano.  Inside the church, he heard a voice say “Rebuild my church.”.  Francis took this quite literally and set about repairing that church building.

           It wasn’t long after that Francis heard another voice in another church, St. Mary of the Angels, it was called. This time it was the voice of Jesus speaking through the Gospel that was read that day:

 As you go proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”. . . . Take no gold or silver or copper in your wallet, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics or sandals or staff.

           Francis knew he was being called to this life.  He was called not only to serve the poor, but to live as one of them.  And not just to live as one of them but see God in them and help them see God in themselves.  He gave up everything of his father’s wealth, renounced all possessions and lived as a beggar the rest of his life.

           The command to “rebuild my church,” became for Francis something more than stone and mortar.  It became about bringing the life of faith outside the walls of churches and into the streets, indeed, into the whole creation, to learn to call all living things—all the things of creation—brothers and sisters.

           His message was simple, but also very demanding:  find Christ and serve Christ where you are.

           1800 years before Francis there was a prophet named Jeremiah.  Jeremiah warned the people of Judah of what was coming—the conquest of Judea by the Babylonians from the east.  He lived through that conquest; he watched Jerusalem be destroyed and a large number of the people taken into exile in Babylon.  He and his companion Baruch were among those left behind.

           The very pressing question to those in exile was, “What do we do now?”  There were choices, much like the choices we all have to make when trouble comes upon us.

           One option, the choice of denial:  they could pretend that this wasn’t so bad and would soon end.  Or another option, the choice of anger:  Spend your life in perpetual resentment and sabotage your oppressors whenever possible.  Or a third option, the choice of assimilation:  When in Babylon do as the Babylonians do.  Let the past go, including the God you thought was on your side.

          From afar Jeremiah knew that his people were wrestling with these questions, and he came to believe that there was another option, an alternative which was a gift from God.  So, he wrote a letter to the exiles, a portion of which we heard this morning.

           The letter urges the exiles to remain who they are in that foreign place, implying that they were going to be there a long time.  Build houses, plant gardens, marry, raise children.  “Multiply there,” he writes, “and do not decrease.”

           And then he says a most astounding thing.  He says,

 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.

           No denial. No resentment. No assimilation.  Be who you are, remain who you are.  But also be where you are and seek its good.

           Now you must remember how tied Israel was to the land, the land of the promise.  The land they believed God gave them in which to prosper and to be his people.  Now that land was gone.  They were in a foreign land, for all intensive purposes, permanently.

           Psalm 137 catches the anguish they felt: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.  How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  It’s a sad but beautiful psalm, although it takes a sudden turn of anger, desiring Babylon itself to be destroyed as Jerusalem was.

           But Jeremiah says, “Wait.  No.”  Sing the Lord’s song where you are.  Seek the foreign land’s good as if it were your own land.

           So we have this morning Jeremiah and Francis.  Two people living in very different times and contexts, but with a remarkably similar message.  Find God where you are. Expect God where you are. And do the works of God where you are.  Seek the well-being of where you are. Don’t forget who you are!  Keep nurturing who you are!  But seek to do good where you are, however strange that place and its people may be.

           That may be enough of a sermon, but I’ve got to bring it into the situation we find ourselves in today.  Church, we are in a troubled time.  Troubles without and troubles within.  The troubles are too many to name, but I’ll name just one obvious one, the one we are sitting in right now.

           We are not in exile, not exactly. We’re still in our comfortable home.  But to be perfectly honest, there aren’t many of us left here.  Yet God keeps saying to us, “Rebuild my Church.”  And God keeps saying to us, “Be who you are, strengthen who you are.  And keep doing the mission, keep seeking the welfare of where you are, yes, even if there doesn’t seem to be much return for your faithfulness.”

           How do we do those things?  First, I submit, check your anxiety. Learn from Francis and from Jeremiah. Do not make the obvious choices.

 ·      Do not choose denial.  Do not pretend that everything’s going to be all right.  They’ll come back, after all we have a beautiful building and a beautiful liturgy. No.

 ·      Do not choose resentment.  Do not blame the pandemic. Do not blame the loss of Sunday as our time and no one else’s. Do not blame the church fights over gender and race and sexuality.  No.

 ·      Do not choose assimilation.  Do not give up.  Do not take the spiritual but not religious route. Do not close the doors and get on with life.  No.

           God says no to all those things.  God says, Don’t panic.  Don’t be in denial. But don’t panic.  Don’t dwell on the past. Honor it and learn from it, but let it go as a measure of the present.  And above all don’t give up.

           Be who you are.  Continue to be faithful.  Do what I have given you to do.  Follow Jesus.

           Francis gives us the message, “Rebuild my Church.”  Jeremiah gives us the message, “Multiply, do not decrease.”  If we take those directions literally it’s easy to despair.  But I think what Francis learned about rebuilding the church, and what Jeremiah was encouraging those exiles to do, was stay clear about who you are and keep doing what God would have you do to serve the world, even the world that no longer cares whether you exist or not.

           A good place to start is in our outward gratitude for life—for the whole of creation—because it is a gift. Care for the creation in which we find ourselves.

           What if our witness to the world as God’s gift that we must care for was so bold that people driving past our red doors would say, “Those people really care about the earth.”  It is not everything we must do to rebuild the church, but we must commit ourselves to the larger imperative of rebuilding the earth. Because in its welfare we will find our own welfare.

           Rebuild my Church and Rebuild my Earth must go hand in hand in our own time of troubles.

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