Sending the Sacred

Notes from
Sunday, November 19, 2017  

Text: Jeremiah 29:1-14

Today was our last Sunday service at 74 Frederick, our site for 111 years.  Next Sunday, we gather at the doors, and parade to 54 Benton, ‘Trinity on Church’.  Many of us have long memories of important times in our lives, marked here.  There may have been more tears than laughter in worship today.

We did celebrate, relishing the old hymn tunes with the great organ swells.  When the choir ended a medley arrangement of hymns, a child cried ‘yay!’  ‘Festooning’ the choir in stoles, the people with ribbons, and the worship furniture and dishes with bright clothes marked with children’s handprints, lifted our mouths and spirits a bit.  It caught many be surprise, to be moved by this.

United Church people are not good at recognizing, naming and celebrating the sacred in church worship.  We do better at ‘rocks, trees, and water’ spirituality.  What – and who – has been made sacred in your worship space?  What – and who – has been transformed from the mundane to the sublime?   What – and who – has been consecrated and commissioned, blessed to be a blessing?

A young guy with a local start-up bought a Maserati, the most important thing in his life, a sign of what mattered to him, and he realized this was sacred.

Parking at St Mary’s in downtown Kitchener, he asked the priest ‘Father, will you bless my Maserati?’  The priest, being unworldly, with a vow of poverty, said ‘certainly – what’s a Maserati?’  The young man knew the priest didn’t get it. 

Driving out to the edge of town, by the Creekside which he knew from TV broadcasts, he asked the evangelist ‘Pastor, will you bless my Maserati?’  ‘Absolutely, just donate a tithe, 10% of the value of the car, and God will shower prosperity!’  The young man had no money left, after a down-payment.

Idling at a little United Church, he asked the young minister ‘Miss, will you bless my Maserati?’  ‘Sure!’ she said.  ‘Only…. What’s a blessing?’

What is sacred, blessed, and consecrated here, that we will send three blocks? We sang ‘The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord’, and ‘I am the church, you are the church’ and ‘The church is wherever God’s people are praising, helping, serving’, providing ‘ear worms’ to remember all week.   Jotting notes during the sermon, you offered people and things as ‘sending the sacred’.

We’re hearing from Jeremiah during this move.  We are not leaving slavery with Moses, or invading a new land with Joshua.  We might be living through a change of empires, and feeling some exile from the ‘good old days’.  Last week Jeremiah mourned the inevitable loss of the Temple and lamented.  Today, he sends a letter from Jerusalem to the first group of exiles in Babylon/Iraq.  

Jeremiah saw that conquest by Babylon, en route to plunder Egypt, as inevitable and advised not to fight back in futility.  The northern kingdom of Israel, weakened by abuse of power by the rich, was defeated in 750BCE by Assyria. Turks and Syrians were scary, but Iraqis even scarier, and he warned the elites.

The elite called that treason or sedition, and locked Jeremiah up.  The first Temple of David and Solomon had stood 500 years, as symbol of stable society and values.  But Jeremiah was right, and it was razed and the literate, top layer of elite exiled, to Babylon on the Euphrates, bookkeepers to the empire.  

Some in exile were proposing a prison camp escape, to return to Israel.  Others planned to take over Babylon and rule it as a New Jerusalem.  Jeremiah writes a letter from Jerusalem, saying ‘don’t listen to them, the radical pietists or the ambitious politicians.  Neither kind of fanaticism was called for by God.

Jeremiah advises the exiles in the first and second deportations, both refugee waves, the best and the brightest of the lost nation, to settle down in Babylon. Doesn’t that sound like our immigration policy, creaming the educated and economically useful for Canada, multiplying the trouble in their homelands?

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 prophet does not commend revolt or revolution, but assimilation, or at least peaceful coexistence, with the empire of Babylon.   In due course, another generation will be freed by Persia/Iran, and return home after 500BCE to build a new temple doubling just before Jesus, only to be levelled in 70CE, after Jesus. 

Charles Manson is in hospital in his 80’s, serving life for telling his ‘family’ to kill those of ‘Babylon’ for their pornography.  David Koresh and Branch Davidians are ashes in Waco, after opposing ‘Babylon’ the ATF of the USA.  Both radicals have fans among the ‘alt-right’ variations on puritanical piety.  

The Moral Majority, ‘law and order’, ‘tough on crime’, ‘Tea Party’ politicians claim the religious right to rule the continent, no more faithful nor successful.  Our tradition, my tradition, Jeremiah’s tradition, resists blessing the empires, but also resists extremist attempts to arrive tomorrow in God’s reign instead. 

Jeremiah didn’t know that he’d be murdered in Egypt, or that a second temple would stand 500 years, or that Jesus was coming, and 2000 more years of no nation-state of Israel or Jerusalem Temple.  God knows what’s ahead for each of us, for our movement now in decline, seeking reinvention. God didn’t tell me.

‘Seek the welfare of the city…. for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’  What if we disappeared, not only from 74 Frederick, but from this city - would the city notice?  Would it be worse for it?  If we survived – would it matter, or make a difference? Would the city be the better for our presence?

Babylon changed Judaism.  The Hebrew bible took form there, for the scattered, ‘diaspora’ Jewish people outnumbering those in Palestine.  The Babylonian Talmud, the ‘oral Torah’, rabbinic synagogue Judaism, was invented there, not tied to either temple, or a Jewish nation-state.

‘Seek the welfare of the city.’  Not by revolution, violent opposition – holy war. Nor by posturing as ‘the conscience of nation’, converting the government.  Probably, Jeremiah meant ‘pray for them’, as Jesus told us in turn to ‘pray for your enemies’.  To ask what’s best for them is the key to what’s best for you.

Augustine did it in the 5th century CE, in Hippo, our Libya, as the Vandals besieged the city, and the Visigoths pillaged Rome.  He wrote about the City of God, in tension with the City of the World.  In turn, Maimonides did it in the 12th century CE, from Spain to Morocco to Egypt, living within Islamic empire. 

How might we transform the city of the world, to be more like an idealized City of God?  We would neither surrender Babylon to evil, nor claim too much for our own purity. Like Reinhold Niebuhr in his Christian realism in the last century, we would recognize that ‘our institutions do our sinning for us’ even in reform: 

There’s so much good in the worst of us
So much bad in the best of us
Its hard to know which of us
Should reform the rest of us

What lies ahead for each of us, and for Trinity as a congregation?  I don’t know, but I know that ‘Trinity on Church’ is just one step along the way.  ‘Sending the sacred’ to the new site is a first step, then ‘seek the welfare of the city’. 

I think I ended with a bit from Thomas Carlyle, very popular among our subculture in the late 1800’s, the early years of this congregation on its original high ground, to which we are returning next week.  Here’s a longer version of what he wrote in Sartor Resartus:

The Situation which has not its Duty, its Ideal,
was never occupied by man…

Fool! The Ideal is in thyself, 
the impediment too is in thyself,
Thy condition is but the stuff
thou art to shape that same Ideal out of,
What matters
 whether such stuff be of this sort or that,
so the Form thou give it be heroic, be poetic…

Do the Duty
which lies nearest thee,
Which thou knowest to be a Duty!
Thy second Duty
will already have become clearer….

What duty is proposed in Jeremiah today?

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….

And what’s the promise repeated by Jeremiah?

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, 
plans for your welfare and not for harm, 
to give you a future with hope. 

12Then when you call upon me
and come and pray to me, 
I will hear you. 

13When you search for me, 
you will find me; 
if you seek me with all your heart, 
I will let you find me.