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Old City, New City
October 13, 2013
By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!: How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Ps 137:1-4)
How can we sing in this land of exile? How can we sing of the Lord’s goodness, compassion, and love in the land of our enemy? So we, the exiles of the land of milk and honey, sit alongside the rivers of Babylon, where the waters of memory and sorrow flow. We were once slaves you know, slaves in the land of Egyptian oppression, slaves to our powerlessness. We cried out to the God of our ancestors, and in fire and wonders, our God listened. Our God brought us up through the waters of salvation and established a covenant with us long ago, that we would be God’s people and YHWH would be our God. Our God brought us through the wilderness and into the land promised to our forbearers, and there we flourished.
The recollected images of those days are just as vivid now as they were then. We built great cities and a temple that echoed the majesty of God. Our kings were just, our courts were fair, and our priests holy. Women and men worked the land together and our children married and had children of their own. The young learned trades and the old died in peace surrounded by their families. Those were the times of peace in the land.
But there are other images we remember as well. Over time, our government became corrupt, our cities fell into lawlessness, and men and women no longer cared for the plight of the foreigner in the land, the widow next door, or the beggar at the gates. Then the armies from the east came. We cried out to God for salvation, but our enemies trampled our gates, burned our temple, and carried us off to a land that was not our own and to cities we did not build.
And now we, the exiled children of Israel, sit here by the waters of Babylon, overwhelmed and weeping. What are we to do but morn? Some say that we will only be here another two years, others say seventy. Amidst this new world, who are we, and what are we supposed to do? How can we sing the song of the Lord?
A lot had changed for the people of Israel. Taken into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar in the year 587 BC, God’s chosen nation had lost everything. The people who used to have it all, now had nothing. They were strangers in a land of diverse languages, customs, and new gods competing for their devotion. So it is no wonder that the Psalmist writes this mournful song of memory. When we remember Zion, we weep. When we remember the good times we had, the prosperity we enjoyed, and how it all has changed we are overcome by a crippling helplessness. Their very identity was shaken by the tragedy of loosing their homeland, and without an identity, it was hard to find hope.
So the people languished in Babylon, unsure of what to do with themselves. In the midst of their misery, there was a prophet named Shemaiah that had been going around telling the exiles not to get comfortable because in just two short years, they would be heading back home to Jerusalem to resume their normal lives. If we put ourselves in the exiles shoes, such a message would grab our attention, wouldn’t it? Don’t feel blue, we will all be able to return to the say things were very soon. So keep your bags packed and wait this place out until we get back home. Put off getting involved in the lives of the Babylonians and don’t learn their customs. Circle the wagons, build the walls, and knuckle under. It will all be better soon.
When I first came on staff to UPC, I discovered a file on my computer’s server of old pictures of the church. I probably spent more time than was reasonable looking through the photos, but I was hooked, fascinated by these images. Some of the earliest are digital scans of black and white prints from the early 1920’s of the foundation of the church being poured and men in black suits and hats standing solemnly next to the exposed beams of the walls.
As the decades rolled on, I saw pictures of Sunday school classes taught by women in demure dresses and children outfitted in their Sunday best. Then, around the 50’s, the pictures started appearing in color and I saw the images of warm Sunday afternoon picnics in the grassy UPC central courtyard. There were pictures of the women’s circle enjoying their coffee in china cups while sitting in the parlor and ones of the campus ministry with well over a hundred UT students in Christian education classes, each one in a suit and tie or wearing a nice dress.
Then came the 70’s and I found pictures of retreats at Mo Ranch and the college students playing volleyball. The shorts got shorter, the hair got a whole lot bigger, and gentlemen, the mustaches were legendary. I began to recognize a few of your faces. Then came pictures of families whose children are now in college and starting their professional lives. There were pictures of young adults who are now elders and deacons.
I was captivated by these photos and as I was going through the images, it felt like generations of church members were sharing little snapshots, and of the story of UPC. We are a congregation with a long history, rooted in a deep story that has touched countless lives over the past hundred years of our existence. I found that a small part of me longed to return to those days, back to times I never knew. I think many of us remember those days with fondness as well. Looking through those pictures, it makes me wonder what the founding members of University Presbyterian Church would think of their sleepy little west campus neighborhood if they could see it today.,
Times have changed, our lives have changed, and new images have replaced those of a bygone era. The boarding houses and gardens have been replaced by towering student housing complexes and coffee shops. The quiet streets have been filled with the bustle of tens of thousands of college students and the noise of traffic. A population of street youth and homeless now shares our neighborhood. Graffiti and litter now line the streets surrounding the church.
Adding to all of this is how our own lives have changed. Sundays are no longer off limits to the office and to extracurricular sports. The Holy Bible, your email, and the OU/UT scores can all be accessed from one device. Kids struggle in schools that are overcrowded, healthcare and housing costs have risen dramatically, and many of us are just now recovering from an economic recession. Families have less and less time to be together, youth face ever-increasing pressure from bullies and drugs, and even our very identities can be stolen and used against us.
And we look at our Presbyterian denomination, and the status of many other Christian denominations throughout the country and we see grim statistics of dwindling numbers, uncivil theological infighting, a rapidly aging population of church-goers, and a new generation of young people largely apathetic to denominational life. At times, it feels as though it is all too much – so much change has happened so quickly.
This swirling rush of new and confusing images leaves us frantic to keep up and we find ourselves overwhelmed. Life seems like this uncontrollable mess. We wish things were different, simpler, and safer. Yes, we can stand in the shoes of those exiles of long ago. Amidst this new world, who are we as the people of God, and what are we to do? How do we sing the song of the Lord in this place and in this time?
The prophet Jeremiah has a message for the exiles of Babylon – a message that sounds very different than the one preached by Shemaiah. Jeremiah knows that the exiles won’t be leaving in a mere two years. Jeremiah knows they will be in exile for the long haul, for 70 years the people will endure this unfamiliar land. And Jeremiah sees the people in sorrow, paralyzed and overwhelmed.
And the Word of the Lord comes to him, “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.”
Seek the welfare of this city, the city I have sent you to, the city that I have given to you in the days of your life, and pray for it. For in your service to this city, you will find your hope, your future, and most importantly, you will find the song of the Lord.
Like the exiles, we too recognize that our geography has changed. Life will never be as it once was. It is all too easy for us to collapse into spheres of existence we can control, isolating ourselves from the persistent noise and confusion of a rapidly changing world. We have anxiety about trying new things that might disrupt the carefully structured balance of our schedules. We cling to our memories of how things used to be as a kind of nostalgic insulation against moving forward. We fear reaching out to meet new people that might confuse the safety of our identities.
But the Word of the Lord that spoke to those frightened and overwhelmed exiles long ago speaks to us today. Build houses and make sure all have homes, plant gardens and make sure everyone has enough to eat, build loving relationships and make sure all have the opportunity to do so, raise your children and ensure that all children have education and opportunity, multiply the mission and witness of the Church of Jesus Christ and do not decrease! Seek the welfare of where you find yourself, right now in this very moment, and pray.
For in the welfare of your home, your neighborhood, your school, your church, and your city, you will find your hope, your future, and most importantly, you will find the song of the Lord.
Think about that associate pastor 50 years down the road who will be looking through the pictures we took this year and laughing quietly at the funny haircuts, the oversized hipster glasses, and skinny jeans and thinking how amazing the story of this family of faith really is. As we begin our stewardship season, I want you to dream big about what the next generation of pictures taken of the people of UPC will look like. I want to challenge you to think big about how you will support the welfare of your home, church, and city. I want you to think about how you can work to boldly transform the lives of those in our midst.
Read the Bible to your children before they go to bed and get them involved in Sunday school and Sound of Angels.
Try a new group of the church, a book group or Bible study, women’s circle, men’s ministry, or the young adult group.
Break out of the comfortable circle you find yourself in and reach out to someone older or younger than you and get to know them.
Pick one Sunday a month and attend the Sunday evening dinner and worship service in the Fellowship Hall. Invite your co-workers or friends to come to church and bring their kids to youth group.
Do everything you can to support the ministry of UPLIFT and Micah 6, either by writing a check or lending a hand.
Learn about the issues on the ballot in the upcoming election and advocate for people to be informed voters.
Volunteer to mentor a child at the GalindoSchool or help out with Manos de Cristo.
As you begin to think about what you will give in time and money to the church this year, think big – dream big. Seek the welfare of the city, for when all are fed and all housed, there is hope. Seek the welfare of the city, for when all our children and youth are educated, healthy, and empowered, there is a future. Seek the welfare of the city, for when the people of God gather to pray and serve, learn and love, we will find the song of the Lord. Amen.