So, February was an interesting month.
Maybe it wasn’t for you, but it certainly was for me. It started with a trip to the Holy Land where I led 20 others to experience the sites that are holy and sacred to our faith. A few days after touching down, I visited to doctor to figure out why I passed out in Newark after clearing customs. A few days later, I was here in Huntington to meet with members of our Staff Parish Relations Team for the first time and to begin to dream about what this season of life would look like for you, for our church, and our family. After that, I went to St. Louis.
I didn’t go to catch a glimpse at Busch Stadium or to eat good barbecue at Sugarfire. I did, however, do both of those things. I was there for General Conference.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of General Conference, let me give you a quick synopsis. It is the lone body that can speak on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church. The appointed body gathers to pray, worship, and discern where God is leading us over the next four years. The work of that body and its deliberative process is what comprises our Book of Discipline, which is our covenant between God and one another for how we seek to live out our faith and organize ourselves.
I was there as a special observer for the called General Conference. My role was to dust off my reporter’s notebook and cover the proceedings for the Kentucky Annual Conference. This was through live reports on social media and daily updates, which I believe many of you shared and followed. It was a chaotic and tense experience, even from my perspective high above it all in the press box of the old Edwards Jones Dome. For a week, I experience all of the protests, debates, disagreements, disillusionment, and anxiety that defined the proceedings. I felt it all. It was the hardest event I’ve ever covered in my life. I was humbled when people I didn’t know messaged me to thank me for my calm and unbiased reporting. That is, after all, what I was there to do.
That experience has been what like most of what I have experienced as a pastor. Since I began seminary, it has felt as though we were seeking to be faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ in a time of tension and anxiety as the people called Methodist and Wesleyan. With each passing year, we’ve wondered and contemplated upon what might come next, what will happen, what will we do when something or anything happens. We’ve lived with that tension for a long time, and even if it is unmentioned or unnamed it is the white elephant that hovers in the corners of our shared life together.
Not mentioning tension that exists seems to be a normal pattern for us in our lives. I remember growing up believing you should never talk about problems, because it could only make things worse. We all would rather ignore difficulties and find an easy path out of them than to engage them for the possibilities they give us. Is that what God calls us to do? It is a question worth pondering as we examine our passage from Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7.
Admittedly, this is a passage that we might believe we know what Jeremiah is talking about. It comes in the context of a famous letter that includes a famous passage from Jeremiah 29:11. There he writes how God has great plans in store for you, which we have interpreted as money, houses, prosperity, and all the good stuff of life. We put that passage on anything and everything, and hand it out as gifts at graduation and other high moments. I believe I have a sailboat with the passage upon its sail. The letter though focuses not on money and prosperity, but with how God calls us to live in response to deep tension and anxiety and how we are called to keep the faith.
The letter comes as the people of Israel have been taken into exile by the Babylonians. This comes after the first deportation into Babylon and before the complete fall of Jerusalem. Jeremiah was a faithful prophet to the witness of God, even as the people demanded him to preach nicer, easier, softer sermons that comforted them. He routinely called the people to recognize their relationship with God and how their inability to remain faithful would lead to an exile from the Promised Land. That came when the Babylonians removed the people from Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple.
Tensions were rising, especially among those who were already in Babylon. Jeremiah, at this point, was among those who remained in Jerusalem. The people in Babylon were wanting the tension and they were fearful of what was to come. There were prophets who announced that they wouldn’t be in this tension and exile long. Hannaniah, in Jeremiah 28, essential said it would be two years if they just gave in to Nebuchadnezzar and recognize that Babylon had enough problems on its own to deal with them. They were willing to believe that message, because it seemed easy and a better way forward. Just wait out the Babylonians and everything will be fine, they desired.
We all want those kinds of messages when we are faced with tense and difficult moments. When the doctor tells me to lose weight, I want the easiest and quickest way to drop the 50 pounds I need to lose. We all do. Why? Because we don’t like living in tension and anxiety. We want to snap our fingers and make it all go away. We’re convinced that if we find the easiest path possible, or one that agrees with how we see things, that all of our problems will go away and life will be back to how it was again.
That’s not what Jeremiah, and especially God, announces to the people. He says God is not promising them an easy way through the tension of living in Babylonia. In fact, he shares with them that their time away will be 70 years, which, in fact, it was. They have to come to terms with the situation and, as a result, try to find a way to live in the midst of the chaos. It is within that reality that Jeremiah offers a word of how to live in this time by doing what seemed unexpected.
He calls exiles in Babylon to do the unexpected and be faithful even in a time of deep tension. Jeremiah writes to encourage them not to give up, to believe all hope is lost, or even to think that there was nothing left for them to do but to live and die. Instead, he says for them to live as the people of God in the midst of a fallen world. He calls them to immerse themselves in the community where they are by building homes, planting gardens, raising families, and praying for the people of Babylon. The response of the people of God, Jeremiah says, in the midst of a difficult moment is to be faithful to the life of God.
In times of tension, the most important thing, the most unexpected, and perhaps even the hardest thing to do, is to be faithful to the mission and calling of God. That is because it is easy to convince ourselves to hold off, to wait until the tension eases, and find the right moment to be faithful to the mission. We’ll convince ourselves that it makes sense. In doing so, we end up stunting the potential and possibilities that are before us.
That is not how God calls us to live. Here an element of truth about life: there will always be tension. There will always be tension in the church, because we are announcing the divine message of a loving and holy God in the midst of a fallen world. There will always be tension in our lives, because we are seeking to live for God while living in the world. There will always be tension, because we are humans who are capable of immense good, but also are capable of doing some things that will make you want to scratch you head. If we are waiting for the tension to subside, for the right moment, or for everything to be right to be faithful to God, we’ll be waiting for ever and we’ll never share the love of God, lead people to a deeper faith, or give witness to the hope of God.
The hardest thing to do, often, is to keep the main thing the main thing while in the midst of tension. That is to love God, grow in faith, and serve the Lord. These are the key elements of what we should be doing as a response to our life in Christ. Yet, often, it is what gets less attention in our lives and communities when we are focused on the tension and anxieties that exist.
If we want to be faithful in the midst of tension and difficulties, then we have to maintain our focus on building houses, planting gardens, and praying for the people by loving God, growing in faith, and serving the Lord. What does this look like?
By loving God, it means that what we do this morning and every day is important because we are focused upon one person and that is the Lord. We do not come to be entertained, to be comforted, or to put on a show. We come not as audience who are watching others give worship to God. We gather as a holy body who come together in one voice to give praise to the Lord through song, readings, prayer, reflection, and sending. We come to express our deep love of the Lord and keep that as our only focus in worship.
By growing faith, it means that we seek to be disciples who are gathering as a community to be led by Christ and grow deeper in our knowledge of the Lord’s desires. It means that we are committed to coming together, not just as individuals but also as a community in small groups, for prayer, Scripture study, and honest and holy accountability with one another.
By serving God, it means we continually seek ways to share the love of God in our community. It means that we are praying for our community and not complaining that it is not what we want it to be. It means that we are finding ways to build relationships and connections. It means that we share God’s love with the broken and hurting of our neighborhood and community.
Many of you have shared a deep desire with me since, really, February to see the church grow. I want that as well, but I desire something much deeper and that is faithfulness to who God is calling us to be as a community. There is no easy pathway to faithfulness and any pastor that proclaims otherwise is not being honest. Growth, both spiritual and numerical, does not happen without reflecting upon what does it mean to live in the time we find ourselves and being faithful through in the midst of it all.
I desire to see us live as a church that seeks to be faithful regardless of what tensions or anxieties may be present. That means we must desire to be faithful, here and now, and do the hard things, because they are necessary, holy, and lead to a deeper life in Christ. The life of Christ is one that even in the midst of the tensions of life calls us to love God, grow in faith, and serve God. It means discerning what that looks like in this time and in this place. It means living with a recognition that we will struggle along the way, but that if we are faithful something good will come of this work.
Just as it did for the people in exile. They learned how to live in the midst of the tension and realized that God was present in that moment. That period included some deep and passionate writing, which makes up a good chuck of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament and it led the to creation of the synagogue as a place of worship beyond Jerusalem.
I wonder what it would look like for us if we too commit ourselves to seeking to be faithful in the midst of tension? What would it look like if we maintained our complete focus on loving God, growing faith, and serving the Lord? I want to find out. Do you?