Sermon: Looking into the Future in the Rear View Mirror

Juliane Poirier Uncategorized

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in My name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:4-11 (NIV)

For those who didn’t get your fill of Halloween candy, there’s a large basket on the coffee table in Fellowship Hall. I personally hope to never see another “fun size” bag of M&Ms again! Halloween originated as a Celtic festival on the beginning of their new year, November 1st. It was believed that on the night before the New Year, when days were shorter, and darkness came earlier, and colder nights of the coming winter, that the boundaries between the living and the dead were blurred, and ghosts of the dead could return to earth.  So large bonfires were lit, and people wore costumes to scare away ghosts, and fortunes were told for the coming year. By 43 A.D. the Roman Empire had conquered most Celtic territories, and Roman observances replaced Celtic celebrations. In 609 Pope Boniface dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to honor Christian martyrs, and he named November 1st as All Martyr’s Day. By the 9th century Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and Celtic rituals were replaced by church-sanctioned holidays. Instead of the Celtic New Year’s Eve celebration of Samhain [sow-in] the new holiday was called All Saint’s Day. The church kept the ritual of building bonfires, and wearing costumes (as saints and angels and devils.) the rigid Protestants in colonial New England didn’t observe Halloween; it didn’t really become popular until the 19th century when Irish immigrants, fleeing the Potato Famine, flooded America, and brought it with them. The two celebrations of Celtic New Year and Catholic All Saint’s Day became All-Hallows Eve followed by All Saint’s Day.

Today we celebrate two cultural holidays that share a common theme.  All Saint’s Day and Dia de los Muertos are remembrances of the dead. All Saint’s Day celebrates and honors those whose lives, through faith and action, have influenced us as persons and as a community. This church is soaked with prayers, and laughter and tears, and with the dreams and visions of those who have worshiped here, for over 160 years.  Some of you have family who’ve worshiped here, and you can probably picture where you sat with them. They are some of our saints.

St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco has life-size icons of saints painted around their sanctuary, saints that include John Wesley, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Frank, and Mother Theresa. Saints are not just “religious” people but those we know who have loved and mentored us, and those we don’t know who have made the world a better place. Today we remember and celebrate our ancestors and our saints, and we thank God for them, and we pray for their light, their vision, and their faith, to live on in us.

Yesterday Katherine Proctor and I went to the Boys and Girls Club to see the Dia de los Muertos ofrendas. Ofrenda is a Spanish word that means “offering” and an ofrenda is a table with offerings for the dead. Every ofrenda includes the four elements of water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst; paper banners represent the wind, bread represents the earth, and candles help the spirits find their way. Marigolds’ strong scent help guide the spirits to their homes, and butterflies represent the spirits of the dead. Whimsical skeletons are reminders of the cycle of life, as if to say, “Life is short and uncertain but let’s celebrate while we’re here!”

Laura read a pericope from the prophet Jeremiah, who pleaded, threatened, and encouraged, our ancient ancestors, the Israelites. He was a social critic, a voice for the Lord, and a poet, speaking to a people in exile who had lost everything: their homes had been destroyed, their families uprooted, they’d been overrun by their enemies, and their nation was in ruins. This is the story of a people who have lost everything and whose future looks hopeless, and who are trying to make sense of the present situation. This is a story about a faith community whose old world has passed away and the new world is not yet seen. Because we live in a time when much of the old, conventional, expected world has passed away, and many of us are unsure of the promise of the future, Jeremiah has a message for us, and especially for us today, on All Saint’s Day, in this place that was built so long ago by people with dreams and visions of a making spiritual home that would last through the ages.

Every generation dreams of a better life for those who are younger. Every generation has saints who build the church (or the world) with those in mind who are younger, who are still to come. It’s a good practice for us to imagine and remember those saints who dreamed about and who built accordingly for families to fill Sunday school rooms and a large hall with a stage. But that time has passed away and the future of the church that our ancestors built is uncertain. One of the tricky elements of a finance campaign is in asking us to invest our money in the future when it’s not clear what the future is; and asking us to imagine what we might build for those who are still to come, without looking back at a different time and a different culture, and hoping to recreate it. It’s like Jeremiah could be asking us to build homes, and plant gardens, and celebrate life, in a place we’re not we belong.

Jeremiah challenged the snake-oil salesmen who prophesied a shiny bright future for Israel, and a quick return of the old and valued way of life… instead he told the people that there was no way around the being in the present. Accepting the unacceptable, he told them, was possible with courageous hope, and by adjusting and accepting what was. Most of us know how to “fake” the best of a bad situation but Jeremiah instructed the people to live wholeheartedly as if they could already see a future with hope, and he held out before them the promise of God. This is verse eleven, often taken out of context solely for these words. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” The Lord had requirements for the hope and future and Jeremiah spelled them out: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there….  Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for the city, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 

Generations later Jesus would echo Jeremiah’s insistence that the Israelites pray for their enemies, the Babylonians. He said, “Listen, all of you. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for the happiness of those who curse you; implore God’s blessings on those who hurt you. Treat others as you want them to treat you.”  Build a life in Babylon, Jeremiah told the exiles; make a home there, plant a garden, and play with your grandchildren. Act as if… act as if you can see a future with hope. This wasn’t passive resistance the Lord wanted or Jeremiah advocated; it was instructions on how to build a life in a spiritual desert. There is no quick fix to the present, Jeremiah told the Israelites, and it’s his wisdom to us too. Seek the welfare of the city, settle down, live into the future, and help heal the world. 

Prophets were funny and odd characters. Their bizarre actions were a reflection or a roleplay of the unfaithfulness of God’s people, and God’s heartbreak and disappointment in them. There’s no weird behavior in this part of Jeremiah’s letter, no name-calling or blaming Israel; but he does demand a paradigm shift. No longer was this people to understand God as their local deity, but the God of all the earth, and of all peoples. This was a new thought, and new theology, that there was no place without God. God was present anywhere, and living faithfully would make God known in an uncertain time and a foreign place.   

Today on All Saint’s Day we remember the saints who built this sanctuary, and planned this campus, and imagined a spiritual home for us without even knowing us. Most of their names and faces are lost to us but we are inheritors of their dreams, and our responsibility to them is to keep dreaming for the future, for those who are younger than we are, for those who are still to come. For several weeks I’ve been encouraging you to sign up to be a prayer partner for a young person in our congregation. We don’t yet have as many prayer partners as we have young people, so if you haven’t signed up yet, and you’re willing to just pray for one young person, please write a note and stick it in the offering plate. This is a little step compared to what Jeremiah demanded the Israelites do, isn’t it? But praying for one young person at a time, and praying for their future, is a way for us build a spiritual home, to plant a garden of love and inclusion, and to imagine for them a faith-filled future with hope.

At the Growing Young summit in Sacramento, our team of four was brainstorming what to share with the larger group about some small steps we could take to welcome and include young people in our congregation. David Tokar mentioned Jasnoor, who’s the two-year-old daughter of Michelle and Chandan Singh. We all agreed that we’d love for Napa Methodist Church to be a spiritual home for Jasnoor through all her growing up years. So we shared with the larger group that we have set reminders on our phones for 2:20 every afternoon, to pray for all young people – from 2 to 20 (and beyond) to find a welcoming, accepting, loving place here, where they can build lives, plant gardens, and help heal the world. Today we remember and honor our saints, especially thanking God for those who envisioned this place as a spiritual home that would welcome and nurture all people. Amen.

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