Updated: Aug 28, 2018
Lesson: Jeremiah 29:4-7, 10-11
I have fond memories of the two summers my family camped in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. Tuolumne Meadows is at about 8,600 feet, so we froze in our canvas tent and old-fashioned, flannel-lined sleeping bags, but that was okay. I didn’t know anyone who had a down sleeping bag. Camping in Tuolumne Meadows meant being aware of bears. You could either hang your food in a tree or do what my dad did: Put your food in the trunk of your car, take a gasoline-soaked rag and swipe all along the opening of the trunk, leave the rag hanging on the bumper, and hope for the best. I suspect that’s no longer an approved method, but it seemed to work. We’d hear the bears rattling the garbage cans up and down the trails of the campground all night, but they never bothered the trunk of our Chevy Biscayne. We were warned not to hike alone. Bears rarely bothered hikers, but when they did, it was almost always a lone hiker. “You are safer together,” said the park naturalists.
We are safer together. We’ve spent the summer looking at how we are created for community. I chose the focus for a sermon series after reading an article that said that declining worship attendance and church membership isn’t about the Church. Some might think it’s because people find Church irrelevant and outdated; that in order to survive, churches need to get rid of the boring creeds and prayers, add a rock band worship service, build a coffee shop in the narthex – and start calling the narthex a lobby. But what’s happening in the church, it turns out, is what’s happening throughout American culture. When you talk about the decline of the American church you must also talk about the decline of the social fabric of our American society, because they are inextricably tied. The United States in 2018 is one of the loneliest and most fragmented cultures that has ever existed, and the church is just one of the victims.
It was not always like this. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam describes the trend in his book Bowling Alone. In the first two thirds of the 20th century, volunteer-based activities were thriving and growing, and local communities were vibrant. People were voting more, church attendance was on the rise, families ate together as a rule, and people hosted one another in their homes. As much as we can gather from statistics, people behaved in a more generous and trustworthy ways toward one another. But, then “mysteriously, and more or less simultaneously we began to do all those things less often.”
This began in the last third of the 20th century, beginning around 1960. In his book, Putnam looks for causes. The culprits seem to be radical individualism, consumerism, materialism and technology; in particular, the technology of television. It was about 1960 when pretty much everybody had a TV. Whatever the cause, almost every organization from the Lions Clubs to PTA to churches to bridge clubs are showing a steep decline in membership and participation, and people get together just to socialize less often, as well. Putnam uses the metaphor – with the actual research to back it up – that people haven’t stopped bowling, and in fact, are bowling as much as ever, but participation in bowling leagues is drastically down. People are bowling alone.
Why does it matter?
Our disconnection from each other has resulted in a drop in voting, attendance at public meetings, participation in party politics and community improvement, benevolence and general trust in our neighbors. We’ve seen America’s partisan clashes become more brutal as disconnected people come to define “us” and “them” in ever more primal and irreconcilable ways. Putnam’s research shows that communities whose residents “bowl alone” – where people are the least connected – are the least tolerant places in America.
In contrast, networks of mutual support bring reduced crime, higher levels of trust, lower suicide rates, a reduced risk of heart attacks, fewer strokes, less depression, greater economic equality and increased tolerance. Research shows that connecting through church and worship attendance gives people longer, more satisfying lives, deeper friendships, stronger marriages and families, and to helps develop stronger character and ties to the community. We are, in fact, safer together. My welfare depends on your welfare.
Which is where we pick up with Jeremiah’s story. It’s the sixth century BCE. Jerusalem has been leveled, and its leading citizens – not the whole population but the bigwigs – have been carried off to Babylon to live in captive exile. How to carry on? How to live as God’s people in a foreign land, an alien culture, a strange city? Conventional wisdom would be to remain apart, isolated. Withdraw, keep to yourselves, wall yourself in and practice your own customs, rituals, and religion in isolation from the threat of alien Babylon. And then the exiled community received a surprising bit of advice in the form of a letter written by one of their prophets, Jeremiah, who was still back in ruined Jerusalem. This is what he advised:
Build houses and live in them;
Plant gardens and eat what they produce;
Take wives and husbands, have children.
That is to say, settle in, live there, be part of the community.
And then this surprising mandate:
Seek the welfare of the city,
pray to the Lord on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Now, we can approach this advice from a couple of perspectives. We could imagine ourselves in the shoes of the exiles. I think it’s important to affirm that the American church is not in exile – we have not been dragged from our homes, forced from our country, or barred from our native land. There is a way that the church feels at odds with culture and frankly, that’s as it should be. The church was born countercultural, offering love as the way to heal what ails us instead of domination and tribalism, and it should remain countercultural. However, it’s easy to feel like exiles when there was a time, recent enough that some people in this sanctuary can remember it, when going to church was the norm. I daresay it may not have been the time when the church was most faithful to the radical good news of Jesus Christ, but at least it wasn’t weird to go to church. So now, like exiles, we live with revised expectations. Like exiles, we are called to believe that God is still at work, no matter how bleak the circumstances. We are called to learn a new language and grammar, much as the Jews settling into Babylon learned a new tongue. We are called to perseverance over the long haul.
Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles is not only excellent advice to the countercultural church; it’s also the job description, the mission statement, and the strategic plan for every church: seek the welfare of the city, of the neighborhood, of the place you find yourself; pray for the people around you, for in their welfare you will find your welfare.
Let me be quick to say this is contextual. Jeremiah is not suggesting that every oppressed people should submit to tyranny. But in this case, Jeremiah is saying the Babylonians are part of God’s plan; that God is the God of the Babylonians, too, whether they know it or not. Just as God is the God of all those folks who never attend church, and God is already working in and through them. Rather than close their lives to the Babylonians, Jeremiah asks the exiles to open up their lives and to learn and grow in the new reality of Babylon.
The other perspective on this story might be to see our selves as the Babylonians. Not that we, in this sanctuary, have conquered and dragged a people into exile, although historically, that pretty much describes slavery. If we follow Jeremiah’s advice in 2018, we might see immigrants to this country as something other than illegal aliens. Instead of subjecting people to a cost-benefit analysis, Jeremiah sees the immigrant as gift, as people destined to make their new society a better place, someone ordered by God in this prophecy to contribute to their new society in a lasting way. A number of American cities were revitalized after the amnesty for immigrants in the 1986. Cities like Santa Ana were transformed for the better. Jeremiah’s letter offers a formula for transformation. The immigrants move from despair to hope as they put down roots rather than living in constant fear of deportation – if they are welcomed by and included in the resident population.
Both of these perspectives invite us to see that in the other’s welfare is our welfare – to see how we are safer and better together. And both of these perspectives are behind our involvement in the Marin Organizing Committee. This summer, our congregation became the 22nd member of the Marin Organizing Committee, or MOC. MOC was founded in 2005 to apply the grass-roots community organizing methods of the Industrial Areas Foundation, or the IAF, to local concerns. The IAF has been around since 1940; it’s the nation’s largest and longest-standing network of local faith and community-based organizations. MOC partners with religious congregations, non-profits and civic organizations at the local level to build broad-based organizing projects. This partnership creates a power base for citizen-led action and for relationships across lines that often divide our communities. MOC is non-partisan. It does not support or endorse candidates. It does, however, seek the support of politicians and elected officials for its causes. It does not have an agenda other than the concerns that arise organically from its members. In Marin County, the three current areas of concern are homelessness, renter protections and educational equality.
Last Friday evening, we hosted what MOC calls a “house meeting” about renter protections in Marin County. We sat around tables in Duncan Hall, telling our stories; that’s what you do at MOC gatherings. I told Leelee Thomas, a principal planner with the county’s Community Development Agency, that practically every week I hear from a church member either that they need to find a cheaper place to live or that they’re worried they can’t stay in Marin because of housing costs. Not to mention our concerns for our adult children, who can’t afford to live here. So the work that MOC is doing is both about the 60 mostly Spanish-speaking tenants in the Canal who just received notice of a 40% rent increase, and it is about us. It is about the friends we made over nine years of winter shelters, and it is about living in a community that is becoming more and more a wealthy enclave, but poorer for the lack of diversity. It is about relationship building as a way of looking at the world. It is about having conversations, and leaving ourselves open to be changed by them.
An organizer in Texas said that their version of MOC had been accused of being “too radical, too dangerous.” But he says, “The most dangerous thing we do is talk to our neighbors.” Let’s be just as dangerous. Let’s talk to our neighbors. And listen to our neighbors. In their welfare is our welfare.
Our nation lost a hero yesterday, a voice of reason and integrity. I will close with words from Senator John McCain’s memoir.
“We need each other. We need friends in the world and they need us. The bell tolls for us, my friends. Humanity counts on us, and we ought to take measured pride in that. We have not been an island, we were involved in mankind.
“Before I leave, I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations. I’d like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different. We’re citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it. Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect, as so long as our character merits respect, and as long as we share for all our differences for all the rancorous debates that enliven and sometimes demean our politics, a mutual devotion to the ideals our nation was conceived to uphold that all are created equal and liberty and equal justice are the natural rights of all. Those rights inhabit the human heart, and from there though they may be assailed, they can never be wrenched. I want to urge Americans for as long as I can to remember that this shared devotion to human rights is our truest heritage and our most important loyalty.”
Thank you, Senator McCain, and thank God for his life, a life witnessing to the truth that we are safer together, and we are better together. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone (NewYork: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 183.
 Peter Beinart, “Breaking Faith: The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse,” The Atlantic, April 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/04/breaking-faith/517785/.
 Putnam, Bowling Alone, 356.
 Joanna Macy, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012), 123; Putnam, Bowling Alone, 356, 358-359.
 Garrett Galvin, “Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7,” October 2013,
 Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Fieldstein, Better Together (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2003), 18.
 Putnam, Better Together, 13-14.
 Putnam, Better Together, 17.
 John McCain and Mark Salter, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations, https://www.npr.org/2018/05/03/607781885/hear-sen-john-mccain-read-from-his-forthcoming-memoir-the-restless-wave.