LIFE TOGETHER - Our City
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.3The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But 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.
This spring, KINDRED began to gather for the first time. As a people, as a community. We had a name, we had a place to worship, and we began to sing the simple songs of faith passed down to us by generations. This summer, we have begun to explore what our identity as KINDRED is really about. What does it mean to be KINDRED? What’s important? Who is God calling us to be? And so, our leaders on the Restart Team took time for prayer and reflection and study and discerned God’s vision for KINDRED
to cultivate bold community that reveals God’s presence in the city.
That’s the vision, God’s vision, for this time and place and people. And these leaders identified values that would help live into this vision as a people:
the Word of God, boldness, simplicity, equality, family, and our city. Houston.
We value our city because our location matters, it affects how we live together. The fourth largest city in the U.S., the most racially diverse city in the country, Houston is home to a wide variety of folks. Some folks were born here, but many come from other cities, and many come from other states. Actually, 1 million people in Harris County (that’s one in 4 people) were born in another country. So that shapes how I look at this text from the prophet Jeremiah.
It must have felt like the end of the world for the Israelites. It was certainly the end of life as they knew it in Jerusalem – not just their homeland, their hometown, but their Promised Land! Theologian Wil Gafney helps us imagine if their story was our story:
Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady, Cabinet and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh were separated from their families and exiled as well. You are sent to live in a foreign land where the food is different, the language is different, your job probably doesn’t exist, and you are at the bottom of the societal totem pole. It’s the reality of millions of refugees across the world including almost 5,000 refugees who come to Houston from 40 countries each year.
Jeremiah tells the people that they won’t be returning home anytime soon. That this generation won’t be going back. That it will actually be several generations before they can return. In the meantime, they are to make this new place their home. It’s easier to endure life-altering challenges when you know there’s an end date, but there’s no such situation here. God is not going to make their troubles magically disappear. They aren’t told to hunker down, isolate and preserve themselves, but to engage and edify the culture they now inhabit. They are to build houses, plant gardens, marry, expand your family…even to those who aren’t the same as them.
7 But 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 exiles, the refugees, are commissioned not only to tolerate the Babylonians, but to love them and to seek their welfare. They are called to care for the city…not necessarily because the city has great parks and a renowned art scene or is so darn loveable, but because this is where God has called them to be right now. They have been exiled from home but not from God.
So I want us to explore more of what this means in our context. In light of what this would have meant to the ancient Israelites, what do we hear the prophet saying to us?
1) What are your initials thoughts?
2) As the dominant power, I’m sure the Babylonians did not expect their conquered subjects to then seek their welfare. Have you ever experienced love from an unexpected place?
3) What keeps you from loving the city/its people?
4) What would it look like to love this city/its people? To build it up?
5) How is God calling you to be a part of that love?
We are called to care for the city, not because the city is so darn lovable, but because this is where God has called us to be right now. We are called to join in God’s love already present here – not just the cool and hip parts of the city, not only the art and the fantastic food, but the whole people of Houston, from the suburbs to the slums. We don’t bring value to the city because we’re a church. We bring value to the city because the church serves the people of the city and seeks their welfare because we know our welfare is tied to that of our neighbor. I’m not gonna pretend like the Israelites heard this commission from Jeremiah and were just like, “oh ok!” Psalm 137 is a song of lament for their loss, their experience of being lost without an anchor, and then it’s followed by a cry for vengeance! Rather the promise unfolded over generations. In fact, is still unfolding. There is no place we can go where God is not already present and already at work and we are invited to be a part of that work, of revealing God’s presence and promise in the city. Let it be so. Amen.