Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seeking the peace of the farm town: The never-ending sermon

From Toledo, IA
Uptown Toledo during our annual Stoplight Festival; July 3, 2013
I recently preached at the three local United Methodist congregations, including the one in our neighborhood where we worship. The sermon was titled "Seeking the peace of the farm town" and it was from Jeremiah 29, verses 1, 4-7, & 11-14, which reads:
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. […]

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take 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. But seek the welfare (shalom/peace) 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. […]

For 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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I 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.
Here's the sermon:

Near the end of the sermon I offered what I take to be necessary virtues/fruits of the Spirit for seeking the peace of our farm town:

  • Honesty - We need to see clearly the tough circumstances that are now facing small rural communities, something I've blogged about recently; this protects us from romanticizing the past, which is a common phenomenon in struggling congregations in struggling towns
  • Hope - It's easy to get discouraged in a community that's struggling; this fruit keeps us from becoming jaded, cynical, and burned out; if the resurrection is our highest hope as Christians, we need to be people of hope in the day-to-day
For each of the congregations I also talked about a few local examples of what seeking the peace here might look like:
  • Planting new forms of church - Towns like this were probably the longest holdouts, but more and more people in small towns do not have the experience of "cultural Christianity" of previous generations. Therefore, large traditional church buildings simply don't make much sense to people who've never stepped foot in them, and we should no longer expect the un-churched to come to us on our terms. We need fresh expressions that make sense in post-Christian communities.
  • Christian education/formation - We need to re-boot Sunday School. The mission of Christian education/formation could never be more pressing in small towns, but as stated above - the ways its been done in traditional congregations makes even less sense than a worship service to the un-churched. My wife has taken the lead here, starting a young women's Bible study in our home, which has helped connect young women who don't typically go to Sunday School, and has even connected with a brand new Christian in our neighborhood.
  • Community development & support - The local ministers association has started brainstorming around community gardens connecting to the local food pantries, as a way to not only supply food that would otherwise have to be purchased, but also as a way to bring people closer together with each other and the land upon which we live. - We've started a bicycling club that's attempting to promote healthier and more active lifestyles, and I have daydreams about a number of other urban ag and bike co-op ideas. - The local Assembly of God pastor prays regularly for economic revival in the community, and that's probably one of the most important prayers I've heard in my year here.

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