Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 13, 2019
Today’s scripture records the prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the Israelites who have been deported far from their homeland into the foreign land of Babylon. The prophet tells them that they’re going to remain strangers in that strange land for many years, and that they’d do well to accept their exile for the time being, settle in Babylon for the long haul, and lead there as normal a life as they can.
Yet, a normal life for the people of God always involves, not just taking care of their own self-interest, but serving the well-being of their neighbors as well. Thus, Jeremiah exhorts them to “seek the welfare of the city”. That is their mission even if the city is, as in this case, one in which they are disdained and even despised.
I am happy to celebrate that God has, under such adverse circumstances, been faithful and generous in His helping His people to fulfill their mission anyway. Despite everything, and despite occasional lapses, they have succeeded in benefiting many a city and blessing many a neighbor.
A couple of years ago, an article in the Washington Post reported, “Broadly speaking, American churches are incredibly generous in response to the needs of a hurting world.” For example, in the last year with reliable statistics, American churches – and this doesn’t include Christian humanitarian organizations such as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse – had contributed over $13 billion to overseas relief and development. That was $8 billion more than was sent abroad by all American foundations, $7 billion more than was sent abroad by secular organizations, and $4 billion more than was donated internationally by corporations.
Overall, American churches also make a big difference locally. According to the research of University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan, who considers himself non-religious, inner-city churches on average contribute almost half a million dollars a year to the local economy, as measured by volunteer service, crime rate reduction, facilitation of sobriety for addicts, support in gaining employment, divorce prevention and building upgrades. He determined that one church alone, First Baptist of Philadelphia, contributed $6 million a year to its local economy (or ten times its annual budget).
New York Times editorialist Nicholas Kristof, who sometimes criticizes Christians for hypocrisy and misplaced priorities, still praises them for their work to advance the welfare of others. He has written about how church-going Christians give far more generously to charities than any other group of people and are far more likely to go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against poverty, hunger, human trafficking, disease and genocide. Kristof says, “I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in these ways – and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties”.
Harvard professor Robert Putnam says, “Faith communities in which people worship together are the single most important repository of social capital in America.” He notes that churchgoers are substantially more likely to be involved in secular humanitarian organizations, to vote and to participate politically in other ways, and to uplift the lives of those around them.
We can thank God for His moving His people to fulfill their mission. But that’s not to say that we who bear the name of Christ couldn’t do still better. For example, while we can celebrate that this church is over 90% solar-powered, has made significant improvements in its water efficiency, and runs an active recycling program, there’s more we could do in green education and in living lightly and lovingly upon this fragile planet.
Likewise, though we’ve struggled for years to get the project off the ground, we could still pull off the job fairs we have long meant to provide for those in our city seeking employment.
Of course, for all the big, programmatic efforts we make to advance the welfare of our city, how this or any church most blesses its city is, through our action and our witness, by giving people a reason to give Jesus a second look and the encouragement to strike up a friendship with Him. When we welcome others warmly into our circle of friendship, share our meals with them, listen to them, assist them as we may (say, by driving them to medical appointments), educate and support them for self-betterment and the like, we motivate them to see if they can know the grace and truth of Jesus themselves in first-hand experience.
Such person-to-person ministry isn’t an irresponsible retreat from the pressing public problems of our world. It is in fact the most responsible and relevant response. For it is not a “system”, a political policy or the bad attitudes of others that is the worst problem for any of us. We ourselves our own worst problem and only God can deliver us from ourselves. We ourselves cannot solve the problem that we ourselves are, but Jesus can – and He will if given half a chance. He is so wise, strong and good that anyone – if they make even a fairly modest connection with Him – can have a far better life and can become a far more potent agent of positive change for their neighbors and their city. He can enlarge our souls and give us a greater capacity to make a difference.
Therefore, helping people walk with Jesus is the most effective way we can seek the welfare of the city.
Even Chinese communists can see that!
In his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, British scholar Niall Ferguson recounted a conversation with an official of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, an arm of the Communist Party. The official praised the role of Christianity in the Western world, and explained why.
His academy had been asked to account for the West’s success. He said, “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion, Christianity…and that the Christian moral foundation life was what made possible the rise of capitalism and…democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
Christians do many things for the welfare of the city that many others do. That is a good, shared contribution.
But we Christians also have a unique blessing to bring our city. It is not we ourselves. It is instead Someone we know – Someone who enables us to be our best and to do our most for others – Someone who loves everyone and wants everyone to experience how He can uplift their personal life, their family and their city.
More will experience His powerful grace if we, by our actions and by our witness, give them a sense of who Jesus is!
Let us pray.