A Future with Hope

A Future with Hope[i]

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 24, 2021

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 29:10-14

 

Two of the most important events to shape the identity of God’s chosen people are the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the Babylonian exile. After the defeat of the Assyrian empire by the Babylonian empire, three deportations take place between the years of 597 and 582 BCE. In our reading for today, Jeremiah addresses those removed from their homeland in the first of these deportations. For the most part, those exiled are from the upper classes—elders, priests, and prophets. [ii] Likely, they are surprised by the content of his letter because rather than a way out of their circumstances, they are given a stunning list of instructions: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and enjoy their produce; settle down, get married, and have families; get on with life—now—don’t wait for the future.

 

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God does not encourage rebellion against the oppressive superpower. Instead, God encourages those in exile to bloom where they are planted—to thrive despite the situation—and to hold lightly to their plans. Afterall, the task of planning is God’s. And what are God’s plans? God’s plans are for the people’s welfare and not for harm—to give them a future with hope.

 

Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says God, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

 

Over the last month, you have received this year’s Stewardship Campaign materials built upon the theme of “A Future with Hope,” taken from Jeremiah. In the letter I provided in the church bulletin and in the one sent as part of your stewardship packet, you read about how Christian life includes cycles of exile and return. But Jeremiah reminds us that even in something earth-shattering (like a pandemic, we might add) God is present and active. His letter reflects a traumatized community who has lost everything: their loved ones, their homes, their beloved city Jerusalem, their language, their culture, and their temple.[iii]

In the past 20 months of a global pandemic, what have we lost? What kinds of exile have we faced—as individuals and as a community of believers? We have those in our fold who have moved to other cities during the pandemic and building new friendships under COVID restrictions has been challenging. For others, a decline in health has made attending in-person worship too difficult. Others have had to make significant decisions about their finances or businesses. Some have faced the cancelation of important family events. As a church, we have felt like foreigners in a strange land. We have learned new technologies; we have worked and worshiped from home; we have been challenged to stay connected in a plethora of new ways.

While there have been challenges aplenty—there have also been invitations to ponder—questions to consider: What has come to light over the course of the pandemic? What lessons can we learn? What inequalities and injustices have been laid bare? What new forms of connection have been born? Because of this experience, are we now able to truly recognize the church is not the building? What blessings has it helped us to treasure even more—precisely because we have had to do without them so long?

As I have heard you talk about your experience of the pandemic, one theme has stood out—how much you miss being with your church family—in worship and around tables enjoying things like potluck meals. While we prefer being together, the truth is that life has always been a rhythm of separation and togetherness, exile and return. Sure, we may prefer the “return” bit, the “bring you back to this place” bit, but that doesn’t mean separation isn’t part of the story. It was part of the story in the Garden of Eden. It was part of the story of the Prodigal Son. It was part of the story for Jesus and his followers—separated by his death and reunited in his resurrection.

Even on our most “normal” days, our lives are a rhythm of gathering and dispersing, coming together and going apart, calls to worship and benedictions. This past year has been a profound experience of this ancient pattern, and as challenging as it’s been, we can take solace in the knowledge that our ancestors, too, experienced seasons of exile. Thanks to this history, over time our faith—and our church—have been built to help us live through such seasons with grace and hope.

Might the experience of this season energize us to seek new ways to make the world a more just, loving, life-giving place? By the grace of God, for more reasons than we can count, this congregation is a life-giving place—a gift to us and to the world. First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta is a place of homecoming and hope, a place we come together to hear the good news, that even during a crisis, God’s ultimate plans for us is a future with hope. When this pandemic is long gone, the world will still be full of need. Our community will still be full of need. That’s why we’re here. That’s who we are: a waystation of hope along life’s journey. It’s why God chose to be born with us as Jesus of Nazareth—to help us build bridges of connection and companionship—so that everyone might experience a homecoming to God’s new world of joy, justice, and love.

Today is Stewardship Dedication Sunday. Hopefully you’ve been praying the Giving Prayer you were mailed a few weeks ago. Hopefully your prayers have helped to clarify how, with the Spirit’s wisdom, you can contribute to the ongoing ministry that makes us who we are today, and who we will be tomorrow. Christianity was made for this: building bridges of homecoming and commissioning, sending and return, welcoming the stranger and being sent forth to visit the sick and imprisoned. FPC is made for this, too. To be clear, though, we are made to do this together, offering up our skills, our hopes, our ideas, our money, and our hearts to answer God’s call.

Shortly, you will be invited to bring your pledge card to The Lord’s Table. If you are worshiping with us virtually, you may mail your card to the church office. If you have misplaced the card or did not receive one but would like one, there are some available beside the offering plates at the sanctuary doors.

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a season of separation like no other we’ve ever known. As we look ahead to First Presbyterian Church’s next chapter, we may never appreciate the power of gathering together in person more than we do today; the beauty of worship—gathering together in the midst of a world full of distance; the wonder of music—singing together in the midst of a world full of loneliness; the sweetness of sacraments—celebrating together the waters of baptism and the nourishment of Communion in the midst of a world full of hunger; and the joy of service—working together in the midst of a world full of broken systems and broken hearts.

If the world is full of exile, our church is a community of return; a place to come home to, again and again; a congregation in which we can tangibly experience God’s ancient promise to “bring you back to this place,” and “give you a future with hope.” Now more than ever, may we stand as a beacon of hope, welcome, and radical hospitality. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Stewardship theme materials from SaltProject.org

[ii] https://revgalblogpals.org/2013/11/18/narrative-lectionary-a-word-to-the-exiles-jeremiah-291-4-14/

[iii] Juliana Claassens https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/jeremiahs-letter-to-exiles/commentary-on-jeremiah-291-4-14

*Cover art photo Dave Hoefler via Unsplash, used by permission