The Gifts of Exiles: Stewardship Sermon for 2015

Jeremiah 29

4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 But 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.

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 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.

Once a year, every October, I preach a sermon that feels like the church equivalent of a NPR pledge drive.

If you listen to public radio you probably know what I mean by that. During pledge drives the programs get cut short and instead people ask you to give money so that the station will stay on the air, and in return you get a mug or a tote bag.

It’s no one’s favorite time of the year, and yet, it has to be done. But if enough people give quickly enough, you even get to go back to your regularly scheduled program ahead of time.

I joked that that was how I was going to do my sermon this morning. I’d pass out pledge cards and when we hit our goal I’d stop preaching and you all would get tote bags.

We didn’t go that route. And that’s for the best because what I am talking about is not an interruption from our regularly scheduled program…it is our regularly scheduled program. And that’s because stewardship, the wise and prudent use of what God has given us, is not a distraction from the spiritual life. It is at the heart of the spiritual life.

That’s because stewardship is not about paying the bills or meeting the bottom line on a budget, though, we’d like to do that. It’s about gratitude. And it’s about hope, and investing in that hope.

Last year I told you stewardship was like planting seeds. If you plant generously, you will reap generously. And you all planted generously. We not only met our pledge goal, we surpassed it. And in the past year this church has been able to do new things that have changed lives.

And so here we are again this year, with a new budget and new dreams. And a little while back we received our stewardship materials from the United Church of Christ’s national offices, and the theme for this year sounded fitting: Trust in the promise. It was drawn off of this Scripture passage from Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future with hope.”

Sounds good. Who doesn’t want to trust in hope?

But then I read a little of the surrounding passage and I realized that these words come from a less than hopeful time. They’re from a letter sent by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish people who had been exiled from their homes, and were living in Babylon. And he’s telling them, you are going to be in exile a long time. Long enough that you need to put down some roots. Build houses. Start families. Love where you’re at.

And, I confess, that changes the passage a little for me. Because it’s no longer “everything is going to be great”. Now it’s “you’re not going home anytime soon”.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t exactly inspire me to open my checkbook.

But then I thought about it some more. And I thought about what it means to live in exile, and about how maybe we all know a little something about that.

Because the reality is that I think we’ve all felt that way sometimes. We’ve all felt cast out of our homes, our comfortable places, and into a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. We’ve been cast out of “the way things used to be” and into a world that is changing more rapidly than perhaps any time in its history. And we’ve been cast into a new place, one where we sometimes long for what we used to know.

And yet, someone is telling us to get used to it. And to plant ourselves in it. And to trust in a promise, a future with hope.

That’s hard to hear when you are an exile. That’s hard to hear when the world is confusing, when you are anxious, or when you don’t know how things will end. And that’s hard to hear when you are being asked to give.

Because, really, if we want to make sure people give, I should be getting up here and saying “everything you love is going to remain exactly the way you like it”. I should be saying, “whatever your favorite thing is about church, give generously and that will never change”. Or, “give today, and you will never feel like an exile again.”

But I’m not. Because I can’t promise that. Because that’s not church.

The reality is that church changes. Every church does. Churches change, or they die. And so we make room for new generations. We invest in their futures. We open their doors wider. And we learn to live in a new time, and a new reality. Even in exile. And because generations of people who have passed through these doors have done that, right here in Exeter, you and I are here today.

And that’s remarkable. Because I want to tell you a secret about those people who built this church: they were exiles too.

I mean that in the metaphorical sense. They were people of changing times who learned to trust in a future that God was building for them. But I also mean that some of them were literally exiles.

Rev. John Wheelwright
Rev. John Wheelwright

The man who founded this church in 1638, the Rev. John Wheelwright, was an exile from, of all places, Massachusetts. (Actually, maybe that resonates.) He had made some enemies in Boston, among the ruling clergy of the time. Why? Because he preached too much about grace. And they ran him out of the colony and here to New Hampshire, to a rugged frontier, where he planted this church and the town of Exeter.

But he is not the only exile in our church family tree. I want to tell you a story about three Scottish young men who found their way to Exeter in the 1650-60’s. They did not come willingly. They had left their homes in Scotland as soldiers, and they had been captured in battle during the English Civil War. And people were so afraid they would rise up again that they sent scores of them off to the new world, where they could never be a threat. Teenagers, sent away from all they knew, never to see it again.

They became indentured servants. And by different routes three of them ended up here in Exeter. They went to work for a man named Nicholas Lissen, who had three daughters. And one by one, they married those daughters. And along the way Lissen, and his three Scottish sons-in-law, John Bean, Henry Magoon, and Alexander Gordon, helped to build this church into what it is today. And even now, if you look around you see those names around this church, on old pew charts and in the cemetery. And you see how three men in exile helped shape us into who we are today, over 300 years later.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine how they were taken from the family and life they’d always known, sent halfway around the world, and how they still managed to find a future with hope? Can you imagine what it must have taken for them to find the love of God in a new place? And can you imagine how, when they had every right to be afraid and bitter and dejected, they instead became invested, and they instead turned their exile into hope?

We still get calls from the descendants of those three men fairly regularly. People call the church and say, “I’ve traced my family tree back to Exeter, and there was this Scottish prisoner of war there in the 1600’s…do you know anything about them?”

And I say, “yes I do”. I know, for instance, that the Beans went on to found a little company in Maine called LL Bean. But, for me, the best story is about the Gordons. Because one of those men, Alexander Gordon, now has a ninth great-grandchild who a little over a year ago you happened to call as your pastor.

ClergyTartanCrossI didn’t know that when I was called here. I learned about Alexander shortly after. And that’s one of the reasons I wear a tartan stole so often in the pulpit. It’s in honor of a young man who was taken from the life he knew, brought to a place where he trusted in hope, and who built something that endures even still today. It’s in honor of an exile, who trusted in the promise.

If he could invest in this church, then I can too. If he could find a home here, than so can we all. Because we are more than exiles. We are ones to whom a great promise has been given, and we are planting the seeds now that will feed not just us, but our children, and grandchildren, and generations to come. With every commitment, with every pledge, with every act of good stewardship, we are saying that this is our home, and that we trust God has a future of hope for us.

And God does have a future of hope. We have seen God working in our midst in this past year, and I know God will work with us still. I know God has great plans for the Congregational Church in Exeter, and I know that something amazing is happening here.

And so, I ask you to consider the decision you have to make. Consider how you will use some of what God has given you to invest in this hope, and trust in this promise. Consider how you can give to this church, this home of hopeful exiles. Because all of us are working our way towards a home we have never seen before, one in which we live with God and with one another in peace and joy. We are going home together, and we are rejoicing on the way.

And like I did last year, I’m going to tell you a few things I think you should know. First, I give too. Like you I sit down with my family and I figure out what I can give to the church. It’s important to share that because I want you to know that this is not about paying bills or meeting a bottom line, though those things are important. This is about saying “thank you” for this amazing place, and saying I want it to be around long after I am gone.

I also want you to know that I do not know who gives, or who gives what. I have told our church leaders not to tell me. What you give is your spiritual decision, made between you and God. I hope you give as you are able, and I hope you give with generous hearts. In fact, I simply assume that you all do. And if you don’t, that’s okay. But, please know this, there is hardly anything better than giving joyfully to a place you love. Not because you have to, not because we need to meet some bottom line, but because your love of this place, and your hope, compels you.

Finally, I’ll close with this. Last weekend you may remember that I was in Canada, as our denomination joined with the United Church of Canada in full communion. But before we did we had dinner with our Canadian counterparts, and we exchanged lapel pins from our churches.

And I was sitting across from a gentleman from the First Nations. And he gave me not just his lapel pin, but also this four directions pin symbolizing his heritage. And he told me, “We’ve done so much more in this church to address what happened in the past. And now it’s your church too. And it’s your work too.” And he put the pin on my lapel.

That’s what church does. It pins its hopes on Christ, but also on the people of Jesus Christ. And it calls us to do the work together. The hopes of this church have literally been pinned upon you. You are now marked by the promise. It’s your work too. But the good news is that it is joyful work that you are being called to today. And so search your hearts, search your souls, and find your hope. And then, together, may we exiles choose to build our home on this rock. Amen?

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