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First Presbyterian Church
Nashville, Tennessee
Dr. Thomas D. Walker
July 22, 2012

 A Special Prayer
Jeremiah 29:4-7
Colossians 1:1-12

Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has always involved movement, exodus, or some kind of journey.  Commitment to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, even if we stay in the same city and the same congregation all our lives, involves a journey of faith.  John Bunyan’sPilgrim’s Progress reminds us that the Christian life is a continual pilgrimage toward the Kingdom of God.  So all of us, to a degree, are on a journey.

Now, an introduction such as this in bygone years meant that Bettye and I and our family were going to move – from one church in a particular city and state to another church in another city and state.  It always involved Presbytery examinations, house selling and house hunting, getting the kids settled in new schools, buying new license plates, and the whole frantic mess.  This occasion, thank heaven, is very different.

On this occasion, I am simply going to retire – again.  Bettye says I failed retirement miserably the first time.  Fortunately, we are not moving.  We will continue to live in the same home and to worship as a part of this wonderful congregation.  We will continue friendships made in the last ten years and to benefit from the wonderful gifts of this splendid church staff – and they are a truly outstanding group.  In fact, I cannot emphasize enough how extraordinary they are and how grateful I am to each of them.

 So even though my relationship with my colleagues and you will change, it will not involve the pain of separation which is so common with pastoral changes.  And from my perspective, that is good.

I want you to be aware, however, that I am hearing all sorts of things about retirement.  All of my retired friends are telling me how important it is to keep busy.  A friend of mine who retired several years ago went to his doctor recently for a physical.  His doctor said, “You look great!  You look better than I’ve seen you in years!  You are tan and robust!  How do you stay in such good shape?” 

And my friend replied, “When I retired four years ago, my wife and I made an agreement.  We promised that if I lost my temper, she would remain silent.  And if she lost her temper, I would go outside and stay until she was over it.  My tan and good health are the result of constantly living outdoors!”

One of my former professors, Dr. Felix Gear, told of an experience shortly after his retirement.  He and Mrs. Gear were reading and listening to classical music in front of a fire one cold winter evening.  Dr. Gear looked at her and remembered all the years they had spent together, all she had done to support him, and he was filled with a sudden rush of love and gratitude.  So he said to her, “You know, dear, I’m proud of you.” Through the years, Mrs. Gear had experienced some loss of hearing.  She looked at him, smiled sweetly, and replied, “I know, dear.  I’m tired of you too." 

I am looking forward to retirement … I think.  But I do intend to stay busy!

I hope I am not over-reaching by making a few observations in this final “swan song” sermon.  If you followed the Old Testament lesson for the morning, you may have noticed that it is a message written by the prophet, Jeremiah, to the people of Israel who were living in captivity in the nation of Babylon.  That experience of exile – of living in captivity in a foreign nation – was a part of the pilgrimage or the life journey of the Hebrew people.  To be in exile is to experience a prolonged separation from one’s country or community.

As the Jewish exiles began their life in Babylon, they were angry and bitter and defeated.  The Psalmist brilliantly captures their mood: 

By the waters of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion… 

How could we sing the Lord’s
song in a foreign land?

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little (children)
and dash them against the rock!

      (Psalm 137 selected)

Rage, isolation, helplessness, hopelessness, burning for revenge.  The captive Hebrews doubted they would ever again see Jerusalem.

I do not believe it is necessary to move geographically to be in exile.  In fact, I think our contemporary culture feels adrift and separated from our traditional moorings.  In a recent issue of Time magazine, Jon Meacham wrote:

“The perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children faces assault from just about every direction….  The American political system (which) Thomas Jefferson called ‘the world’s best hope,’ shows no sign of reaching solutions commensurate with the problems of the day….”

“This,” says Meacham, “is the crisis of our time.  The American Dream may be slipping away.” (Time, July 9, 2012)

This is new territory for most Americans.  We are finding ourselves in a type of exile.  The comfort zone is disappearing.  “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

And it is not just secular culture.  Lee Ann Watkins is rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She wrote in a recent issue of The Christian Century (7/13/12):

“Recently our church did something I never thought we would do.  We cancelled all of our adult education opportunities and midweek services.  They just weren’t working.”

“Over the years I’ve found myself seduced by whatever the latest idea is for getting people to flock to church.  And every single time I’ve been disappointed.  What’s more, in the last few years I’ve developed some inner snarkiness toward the people who don’t show up, even though I otherwise adore them.  I worry that I inadvertently pass this resentment along to them.”

“It’s just not working,” she says.  And even as a leader of a community of believers, Lee Ann Watkins is experiencing a form of exile in her ministry.  And I can identify with her.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a very different denomination from what I grew up with.  How does one sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?  “It’s just not working,” says Lee Ann Watkins.

Do you ever feel as if you are an Alien in this world?  As if no one shares your values?  Does it seem as if evil is increasing and goodness is decreasing?  Do you feel separated from a way of life that seemed comfortable and sensible?  Do people seem more intense?  Are issues more complicated?  What are we to make of the mass murders that are so much a part of modern life?  Does culture seem to be disintegrating?

Jeremiah’s words to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon may have some relevance for you and me in this uneasy stage of our pilgrimage.  As the Jewish exiles settled into Babylon, angry, bitter, defeated, feeling abandoned by God, they received a strange letter from the prophet Jeremiah:

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (29:7)

Which, I think, was a way of saying: Get on with the business of living!  God is with you wherever you are and in whatever state you may find yourselves emotionally.  Self-pity is counterproductive.  Commit yourselves to God even in Babylon!  Love God and love your neighbors.  Be faithful!  God has plans for your welfare and not for evil.  God promises you a future and a hope, regardless of your present circumstances.

I choose to interpret Jeremiah’s words to the Hebrews as words for you and me also.  Jeremiah urges those in exile to pray.  That may sound simplistic, but it is major for people of faith.  We are to pray for our world, for our political process, for our culture, for our divided church, for our political leaders, “for in their welfare,” says Jeremiah, “we will find our welfare.”  God will not forsake us when we find ourselves in exile.  God has not given up on the world, or the church, or us.

So we are encouraged by Biblical faith to pray – to commune with God.  Not whine; not grovel in self-pity; not rage; but pray for faithfulness and pray for others.

The apostle Paul forged an unbreakable bond between himself and the congregations that he established throughout the Roman Empire.  And like Jeremiah, Paul wrote letters to those churches.  One of the most remarkable things about Paul’s letters was the way he usually began.  He would tell the people what he had been praying for them.  And then, often later on in the letter, he would beg the people to pray for him.  Thomas Chalmers once said of Paul, “He worked as though all depended on him; and then he prayed as though all depended on God.”

I have never been satisfied with my prayer life.  I wish my prayers could show the depth and sensitivity of Paul’s.  Paul says to the Colossians, “…May you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfullygiving thanks to the Father….”   Professor Al Winn, says that joy is one of the most common elements of Paul’s prayers.  Joy is an emotion, a feeling, and it is the antidote for all the dangers we encounter on any pilgrimage.  Joy is finally catching on to God’s incredible sense of humor.*

Professor Winn quotes Frederick Beuchner, a Presbyterian minister who is also a novelist.  Beuchner has written a great deal about joy.  Joy, says Beuchner, is Abraham and Sarah laughing at the prospect of little Isaac being born in the geriatric ward with Medicare picking up the tab.  Joy is the great King David, dancing in his BVDs before the ark of the Lord to the horror of his aristocratic wife, because he more than most saw the wonderful humor of it.  Joy is seen in Jesus, telling those absurd parables.  Like the one about the host whose stylish friends all turned down his invitation, so he went down on skid row and brought in the man with no legs who sells shoelaces on the corner … and the old woman in a moth-eaten fur coat who makes her daily rounds of the garbage cans … and the wino with his pint in a brown paper bag … and the fellow who stands at the traffic light and waves at every car.  They are all seated at the carefully prepared table in the great hall.  The candles are all lit and the champagne glasses are filled.  At a sign, the musicians in the gallery strike up Amazing Grace.  Beuchner muses,

“Is it possible, I wonder, to say that it is only when you hear the gospel as a wild and marvelous joke that you really hear it at all?  Heard as anything else, the gospel is the church’s thing, the preacher’s thing, the lecturer’s thing.  Heard as a joke – high and unbidden and ringing with laughter – it can only be God’s thing.”

The joke, of course, is on the devil, that force of evil which believes it has seduced and stolen God’s world.  The joke is the cross of Jesus – Jesus’ death – which appears to be evil’s victory, but is actually God’s ultimate triumph.

My prayers are a far cry from the apostle Paul’s.  But here is a prayer I would offer for the saints of First Church, Nashville.

O God, You know how possible it is for people to be loyal to the church as an institution, to take responsibility for her, to exercise power for her, without any idea of your will as it is revealed in scripture.  Fill First Presbyterian Church corporately, and her members individually, with knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to discern your will.  May they discern it clearly enough to lead lives that are faithful to you and intent on pleasing you.  May they bear fruit and grow.  May they be strengthened for endurance and patience.  May real gratitude for what you have done and are going to do be the main source of their moral efforts.  And in it all, O God, may they have joy and beauty.  May they catch onto the cosmic joke.  In the face of the varied forms of hell itself, may they laugh with you until the tears roll down their cheeks. 

In the name of your Beloved Son, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.  

The Lord be with you now and forever.

Note: I received help with the Colossians texts from two different sources by Dr. Albert Curry Winn: (1) a sermon he preached at Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Va., entitled “What Shall I Pray For You;” on May 24, 1981; (2) Christ the Peace-Maker, pp, 27-34, 1982-1983 Bible Study Book, “Studies in Colossians,” produced by the General Assembly Mission Board.

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