Creekside Church
Sermon of September 18, 2016

"Doing Time"
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

Elizabeth Kelsey


“Pray for peace.” You will see the Reba McEntire’s completed video at the end of the service. I wonder, if Creekside were to make a video focused on peace, there would be lots of possible background settings? Perhaps the prayer garden with its rippling water and blooming flowers. Perhaps standing in front of Concord High School recalling the debate on Christmas Spectacular. Maybe in front of the mall or your place of work. Perhaps down at Washington Gardens, in front of a bar, or at the vacated “tent city.” Peace is a broad term. It can refer to both the inner peace of “peace be still” or the prayer for “peace in the city,” if you get my meaning.

Looking at our scripture from Jeremiah, you could have taken a “pray for peace” video on every street corner of ruined Jerusalem as well as in the exile camp in Babylon. Thomas Rogers tells the story this way:

“[The prisoners] looked over their shoulders one final time to see what was left of their city and their homes. They searched the rubble with their eyes, longing to see something familiar that might bring comfort to their unsettled hearts and minds. But when the smoke from the fires cleared enough for them to see, they saw only empty spaces where their houses had stood . . . In angry disbelief they stared at the empty space where Yahweh's temple had previously stood. This look was their last visual memory of what had been their home and their religion. As their captors led them over a hill, the city [of Jerusalem] dropped out of the prisoners' sight. These citizens of Jerusalem were then led to Babylon.

“The exiles naturally longed to return home where things were familiar, comfortable and settled. So what did they do? I suppose you could say they did what many prisoners do. They "did time." They waited. Oh, they continued to go through the motions of living, but they had their hearts and minds on hold. Things would not really be okay for them until they got back home.

“Then the letter came, [delivered by a courier from Jerusalem.] Yahweh's prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon. We can envision the scene. The people gather around to hear the letter read. It is a moment of hopeful anticipation. They open the letter and begin to read.

“Jeremiah says they are to build and plant and raise families. They are to settle in as full-fledged members of the community. They are to quit thinking of themselves as prisoners of war. They are no longer simply to "do time." Through Jeremiah's letter Yahweh tells them that they are not in Babylon accidentally. They are not just the victims of bad luck. They are not to spend their days moping for Jerusalem and the good ole days. They are not to shirk away from their captors, hating them as their enemies. Rather the exiles are to reach out to the Babylonians in good will. They are to work for the welfare of the land. They are even told to pray for the land and its people--to seek "shalom" for their captors. They are to pray for Babylon's welfare and peace. God tells them that in Babylon's peace the Israelites will find their own peace.”

Jeremiah’s letter shocked them. The Jews had always been a people set apart from others. Yahweh seemed to be saying that looking for God in Jerusalem temple was a thing of the past. “Now,” God said, “it is time to find me here in this unfamiliar land of exile. Instead of staying in refugee camps, build houses. Plant gardens. Marry and raise families. Work and pray for the welfare of this foreign city. And in seeking Babylon’s peace, you will find your own peace.” In other words, settle in for the long haul.

But there was also a second message for God’s people -- a promise that God still has a plan for them and will eventually restore God’s people to their homeland. God’s plan is for their welfare and not for harm. God adds, “When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart.”

Maxie Dunnam says, “Nothing is more therapeutic and comforting than to hear with ears of faith, “God has a plan for me.” And nothing gives more direction and strength for life than believing that. If you believe there is purpose and direction, and that God is involved, you can focus your energy; you can be single-minded in looking and seeking to discern God’s leading. You can even relax in the fact that the burden of the future doesn’t weigh on your shoulders.”

When our life unfolds in overwhelming ways, instead of simply “doing time” we can accept this promise for ourselves. God’s plan is to restore us, and when we seek we will find God.

I think the term “doing time” sometimes applies to us. We give excuses why we can’t actively dig in for the good of the congregation, or community, or nation, or world. “I am too old -- I can’t get around very well.” “I am too poor -- I have nothing extra to give.” “I don’t have time -- I have a job.” “I can’t do that -- that’s not me.” “I’m not creative--I don’t have any new ideas to give.” We can just “do time” here on earth or we can work for the welfare of the community.

“There is a beautiful metaphor about seeing a parade through a knothole. The parade is behind a huge fence, and you want to see it. The only opening is a knothole, so you press your eye to the knothole and you see the parade. But you see maybe just one line of people in a band, or a big bass drum being pounded on, or maybe a tuba will pass by and completely dominate all that you see. Through a knothole you just get a tiny picture of what’s going on. But if you can climb up to the top of the fence and look over, the glory of the parade comes into full view. Not only the entire band, but the baton twirling majorettes, the flag-bearers -- you see it all. And what a difference.”

When we don’t participate, our world gets smaller. We only see life through a knothole. Our sense of community shrinks. I learned this recently when we made the decision to attend my grandniece’s wedding in Minneapolis. We were going to stay home. But by going I feel connected to my nephew’s life, and Audrey and A.J. know who their Aunt Betty is. I chose to be part of our family community.

Mark Trotter suggests that real “community” has become less and less important in the last half a century. You can trace what has happened. Before World War II, Trotter says, people had porches and neighbors would come by and engage in conversation. You probably knew everyone in town. After the war families moved to the suburbs and sat on their patios in the backyard rather than the more open and friendly front porch. The community was narrowed to the family and a few invited guests.

Later, with the advent of television, the family moved inside to the living room. The rest of the world was shut out. Then came computers and the internet, and now much of our community is people who are strangers and with whom we relate superficially.

Those of you who are in the 9-week Bible study may have been asked to fill in the blank in this question. We often say, “Yes, I would like our church to grow, but we don’t have . . . like other churches do.” What would you put in that blank? If we really want our church to grow, we can’t just “do time,” we have to “dig in.” Jeremiah said, “Make yourself at home. Learn to know your neighbors.” The exiles were called to be a blessing even in what appeared to be a supposedly cursed situation. But they could only be blessed themselves if they blessed others and got on with living.

Those who were at the retreat last weekend sat around tables thinking about ways Creekside can invite and reach out. Not necessarily so the church will grow, although that would be a good result, but to bring wholeness and shalom to our community. That’s what God told the Jews in Babylon to do -- “seek the welfare of this city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” If the term “welfare” confuses you -- think well-being, health, peace and wholeness. Once relationships are developed, we have the opportunity to bring shalom and share the good news of Jesus.

Rogers says, “You could say that the sinless Son of God became a prisoner in a strange and unsettling world filled with sinners. But rather than just “doing time” and counting the days until he would again be at home in heaven with the Creator, Jesus got to work. He reached out to those who lived in this foreign land . . . Jesus entered into a relationship with each of us. He became our loving friend. It is this very story of his love for us that unites us together as we gather for this worship . . . We rejoice in his loving actions that drew our lives to his. We call it: the good news. Jesus gave us a good example of settling in and becoming part of the neighborhood.

Let’s not just “do time.” Let’s learn to know our neighbors. Let’s work for the welfare of our community, our country and our world. We can’t control the violence in our world, but we know God understands the peace that passes all understanding. God is our only hope. So people, let’s pray together for peace! Amen?


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