GOD’S WORD IN A SHAKY HOUSING MARKET
Jeremiah 32: 1-3a; 6-15
My grandparents used to live outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a land that, decades ago, was home to dozens of steel mills. The industry of Western Pennsylvania carried our nation in the middle of the 20th century. But as recently as the 1960s and certainly the 70s and later, steel mills have all but completely shut down. As a child visiting each summer in the 60s, I remember the concerns residents had about the mills starting to close and the unemployment that would result. Lower income later meant lower revenues for cities, and the infrastructure- roads, bridges, sidewalks, and parks- just began to look more and more run down. In the gray overcast skies of that state, people began to grow blue or anxious. Some of those laid off drank more heavily; some faced foreclosure on their home or repossession of their car. Young people couldn’t wait to get out of their dead-end small town and head somewhere warm or sunny, or at least different, where a job could be found.
On a video tape that I gave Pete Zahn’s class to view next week, the Presbyterian Churches of Western Pennsylvania, during the 1980s, looked at ways, not to leave, but ways to do faithful work amidst a changing climate. They smartly canvassed their neighborhoods and asked people, (whether they were Presbyterian or not) what their greatest needs were. Then they got their most creative and willing people together, some blue collar, some white collar, to address the issues. Instead of just thinking how to keep church doors open, they decided to take Christ to their community. One huge concern was children in school without health care. Well-connected people knew who to contact with Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Pennsylvania and worked with the company to create a low cost group policy that would allow children to at least have minimal coverage. Many older people could no longer get out because of limited mobility and harsh winters, so one of the churches started a meals-on-wheels program for them. Other working mothers needed affordable after-school care so one of the churches began to offer that. And as they, together, weathered their winters of discontent, Pittsburgh Urbanization teams began to get a vision and a plan for revitalizing downtown. Gleaming new buildings, shops, a ballpark, arts museums and halls began drawing businesses back to the city and the surrounding areas. There are still some dreary places in the land that I love in Western Pennsylvania. But instead of everyone moving away, now there are many, including young families, who have stayed, moved back, or even moved there for the first time to cities where vision helped to keep people from perishing.
As new home sales across the nation hit a seven year low this week, those of us who live here in Volusia County, which the News Journal dubbed “Low-tech Land,” have wages below the national average while rents and mortgages have climbed. We have areas still hurt from hurricanes three years ago, and some areas have been nicely rebuilt. We have leadership in Daytona Beach and surrounding cities that seems more sensible and visionary than in years past. And yet plenty are still leaving Daytona while others move in. What could a church do–ours for example–to take a lead in helping our community like the successful Pennsylvanian Presbyterians did? What could a church do in hopeful ways to make God’s earlier promise true even for us: “Houses and fields will again be bought in this land?” Realtors take heart. There will be more people moving here and we will seek to be their caring community after they arrive. Our church deliberately works to provide health ministries and vaccinations, to become a cultural lighthouse for music and a haven for families with quality educational programs. We have had Kids Klub and MOPS until the need for such abated, and something new will take their places. We have spiritual growth Disciple groups for all ages and monthly mission work. We have fellowship outings from cruises to pilgrimages, ballgames to golf, and picnics for all ages. We feed hungry people and give children a home who don’t have one. And we support a counseling center that helps make wounded people whole. Even as church receipts are down, as income is also down for many, taxes are up, and homestead exemptions have changed: there is hope on the horizon. Many areas in our communities are gleaming again, even as there is more to be done. But if we Presbyterians are called to live faithfully in our communities, to look carefully at Scripture, and listen prayerfully to God, what might it look like if we mobilize our spiritual armies and not become obsessed with institutional maintenance? Our work would need to be planned well; some could encourage those in government, construction, law, or social services by sharing ideas and a vision of directions that would be mutually beneficial. Together we could plan for a future, not like today, but better, letting God guide our feet and minds and hearts.
As we conclude our month long study of Jeremiah, (a book assembled in the midst of national calamity) we find that—although terrible judgment came on the people of Judah for their sloppy servanthood, faulty faithfulness, and endless desire to have all the toys that the Babylonians had, God said, “Enough. You want to be like the Babylonians, then you shall be Babylonians.” And with God’s blessing, if you can believe it, Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar stormed and pillaged the city, including the heart of Jerusalem, the Temple. It became Babylonian territory and many, mostly the best craftsmen and leaders, went back to Babylon to work as slaves of progress and infrastructure. So the people of Judah, because of their careless and lackadaisical worship of God and study of Torah, experienced the consequences of their decision. That’s how God works: from your decisions will either come blessing or curse, depending on your heart and your goals. But now in the Jeremiah text, the price has been paid, the lesson has been learned, and the agony was over. With the interesting lesson about buying houses, fields, and vineyards, God called his people to repopulate Judah again, to come home, and to bring their newly learned skills to bear to rebuild of the Temple and make Jerusalem the grand city it was intended to be.
Proverbs says “Without vision, people will perish.” Others have said without hope, nothing makes us trust that, as it has been said “the sun will come out tomorrow.” All the possibilities of a new day will be light unto thy path of what seemed hopeless yesterday. What has made your heart sink in the past, or has made you feel low today? What is your Pittsburgh, your Daytona, or your Jerusalem? Is it a job or lack of one? Is it the feeling that you have lost your ability to motivate others? Is it this fall term at school or perhaps a yearning to change majors? Is it making a decision that impacts your family or a decision regarding your health that you dread? Is it the dread of wondering how long you can live alone or whether now is a good time to look into assisted living? Everything that happened in the Jeremiah passage flowed out of the re-emphasized message: “Thus says the Lord.” God’s word and will can be consulted in the decisions before you. God will accompany and encourage you in your unknown lands, if, as it has been said, “you will but trust in God to guide thee.” None of the strange business deals of today’s text were Jeremiah’s ideas, they were God’s. And it was another Jew, later named Paul, who took that Jewish idea and made it Christian with these words: “We know that in everything God works for God, with those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” Robert Schuller once put it, “God can turn your scars into stars!” And so he can. Even when some people mean things for harm, God can turn them into good; watch for it with hopeful and faithful eyes. The timing may not be your own, but in God’s time, with faithful people catching the vision of a new day, there will be light where before there was darkness, and creation where before there was destruction. God’s Word gave faithful people guidance in the past, in the present, and, if we pray for it: in the future. May God in Christ be Lord of our lives through all our circling years. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 30, 2007