Sermon: Are you a Settler or a Wanderer?
Scripture: Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date: March 19, 2017
As we continue our study of call today, the first thing we need to remind ourselves is that the American Church will only begin living out its call in the world when it realizes that to be a Christian today means to be living in a community of exile. This goes against everything we have been told growing up in this country. We have been taught to believe that we were founded as a Christian country and our values stem from the Judeo-Christian ethic (whatever that means). I would suggest that we are instead a nation founded upon and living in the world with Christianity-ish values.
If we use our primary call, as Labberton suggests, to love the Lord our God, and then in turn, love our neighbors as ourselves, then we must admit we are falling far short of that stated American mythology that we are a Christian nation. We have used the concept of Manifest Destiny to justify that as American Christians, we are living in the Promised Land just as the Jews of the first generation after Moses inherited Canaan. The problem is, human nature, or if you prefer, our sin nature, gets in the way. The Jews that captured Canaan had a difficult time remembering the Laws of God and their failure to live in God’s way got them sent into exile. They altered their call of God to love Him and others into a patchwork quilt of religious, social and cultural beliefs that benefitted themselves at the expense of loving God or neighbor.
We have done the same thing in our own country. We took the 15th-century notion of a Doctrine of Discovery instituted by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 and canonized it into American law by our Supreme Court in 1823. Pope Alexander’s bull stated that land inhabited by non-Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed and exploited by Christian conquerors. It stated that the Christian religion should be expanded at all costs and that all “barbarous nations” be brought to the faith. If the newly conquered nations and people did not submit to the faith, they could, with the clear conscience of those conquering the new lands, be executed and their native land taken away. Our nation codified the Doctrine of Discovery with the Johnson and McIntosh case of 1823 when Chief Court Justice John Marshall wrote the unanimous opinion that “The principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to new world lands.”
I don’t know about you but that does not sound like a nation founded on Christian values to me; these are the same Christian values that enslaved other people, denigrated women and exploited child labor. This sounds nothing like a nation founded on the primary call to love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself as Jesus taught. To that end, I would say that our country, indeed American Christianity is living in exile from any Promised Land we think God has bestowed upon us. We are a people living in exile.
This is where we find the prophet Jeremiah in today’s text. He is speaking to those who forsook their love of God and neighbor, their very first call, by chasing other gods and taking respite in an undisciplined life and culture that took them away from the Promised Land and placed them amid enemy territory. Our scripture today are words of encouragement to those Jews in exile that though they are living in exile now, the time will come when God will bring them back home. Our text today has God through Jeremiah reminding them how to live their lives in an exiled land. Let’s listen to the Word of the Lord and see if we can figure out how it applies to where we are today in 21st century American Christendom.
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14
29.1 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. 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.
8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.10For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For 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, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Beloved, we live in a land where false prophets and diviners among us are preaching that bigger is better, the most powerful are the most important, people get what they deserve, and that we are not our brother or sister’s keeper. These are the ones who declare that accumulation of stuff is our American birthright and that our Constitutional right for our pursuit of happiness overrides the basic Gospel Story of Jesus who pursued relationship with God and others at the cost of his life. American Christianity has built her churches to look like and emulate shopping malls where one can feed from a smorgasbord of programs and services that fit one’s tastes; indeed, we use consumeristic jargon to describe how we church shop, hop, and plop looking for the perfect community. We are, my friends, a community of faith living in exile from God’s understanding of the Promised Land. As Labberton reminds us, our culture has “Groomed us to think optimistically about our lives and future. Our faith today is seen as a means to fulfill this dream.” He goes on to make the bold statement, “Christians are virtually indistinguishable from anyone else in culture.”
Again: oh my.
In our study of our call, both as a Church and as individuals, it is vital for us to know where we live. If we think we live in the Promised Land, we develop a whole set of questions and mindsets with which to see the world. If we acknowledge we live in exile, then we relate with the world, culture, neighbor and God in an entirely different way. We are reminded that the Church cannot live out its vocation of loving God with all we have and loving others with all we have if we do not know where we live. “The gift of exilic living is that it exposes believers to the school of authentic faith.” In other words, if we are living our faith as though we are foreigners in a foreign land, then the expression of our faith gets amplified both in the lives of our neighbor and in the life of any local church.
Our exilic faith forces us to see the world as it really is, including the church’s place in the world, and it challenges our Promised Land faith of abundance and forces us to drink from the culture’s cow trampled streams; in other words, it reminds us our calls are real and costly and they demand that we get out of our comfort zones and places of safety both as a church and as individual Christ-Followers. For the Jews in Babylon, life was not about overcoming, overtaking and dominating the Babylonians; on the contrary, their life was to be lived in obedience to their primary call of God which is to love God and to love others on God’s behalf in the midst of their Babylonian life.
Why is it important to know where we live as a Church? It is important because our spiritual life develops as a direct result of the context we find ourselves in; if the context is changed from Promised Land to living in Exile, then our spiritual lives will need to respond to life’s changing cultural conditions and develop new spiritual practices that emanate from that context. Knowing where we live means we know how to best live out our call in the midst of living as strangers in a strange land.
This past week, our Cuba mission team reported on their experiences from their visit there a month ago. They described how time seems to have been frozen in the late 1940’s and ‘50’s because of the revolution. Vintage cars roll along the streets. Beautiful old buildings are deteriorating from neglect. The churches which have been kept silent for decades have had to learn to live and express its faith and call within a hostile climate whereby a Christian is persecuted at worst or kept down in the lower economic classes at best. It was the same way when I visited the churches of Eastern Germany before the Berlin Wall came down: The Church had to move underground to survive. It was costly and risky to live out one’s faith in God and in Jesus. How, my friends, does our culture, our society, demand that we adapt and change how we live and express our faith today? Then again, has that question even popped up on our spiritual radar screens?
The great quote my generation learned came from the lips of the late Judy Garland. “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.” We live in a post-Christian nation and world friends. The Church’s voice has been muted and the transforming message of the life-changing gospel is earnestly being repressed as being out of touch, irrelevant, or a joke; sadly, the Church’s lap is where much of that blame is placed. The church can continue to live as though it is still living in a nostalgic yesterday that never really existed or it can recognize and embrace its primary call from God which is to be an ardent, dynamic community of disciples who are being obedient and loving towards the Lord and to a world around us even though it may not want or even recognize their need for that love. The church in America may be in decline and dying as scholars say but the Good News of new life in Christ cannot be vanquished. The challenge of our call today is to rise up to that challenge and declare the Good News.
Just as Jeremiah instructed the exiled Jews to get on with living their life in a strange land, so we are called to live as bright, aromatic, multicolored lives of faith where we are right now. It may not be popular. It may not be well-received. It may not be easy and neither might we see any success from our efforts. Our call demands that we be the enfleshed Christ in the world we find ourselves. It’s like Dr. Labberton says, God’s strategy is to use unexpected people to embody unexpected love. The question is whether we are or are we simply pretending to do so? The Holy Spirit add understanding to these words. Amen.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 See Inventing a Christian America by Steven K. Green (Oxford, 2015) at https://www.amazon.com/Inventing-Christian-America-Religious-Founding/dp/0190230975/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489855649&sr=8-1&keywords=Inventing+a+Christian+America+by+Steven+K.+Green.
 I first learned of the Doctrine of Discovery in Brian McLaren’s book, The Great Spiritual Migration. How the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian. Please see https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/imperial-rivalries/resources/doctrine-discovery-1493.
 The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Mark Labberton. Called. The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 52-53.
 Ibid. 56.