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"Seek the Welfare of the Neighborhood"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 26, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Jason Broge, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Jeremiah 29

I've been surprised over the last couple of years to discover just how many people, just how many Christians, do not care about their neighbors and their neighborhoods—in many cases, do not even seem to like them. Over the past couple years, Lutheran Hour Ministries has been developing The Hopeful Neighborhood Project based on our research with the Barna Group. As a part of this, we've been doing workshops, beta testing our curriculum, learning so that we can refine it, improve it, and make it better. During these workshops there has been one consistent stumbling block that has come up time and again; people like the materials; they like the process; they think the project is good, but people do not understand why we are doing it in neighborhoods. During workshops people have come up to me at breaks and said, "But I don't know my neighbors." People have come up to me and they've said, "But I don't like my neighbors." People have come up to me and said, "Oh, those people over there need me more." People have come up to me and said, "But you don't understand, Jason. I live in a gated community. Everything is wonderful. My service should be given somewhere else." It's as though people do not have a sense of calling to the very place in which God has placed them.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not condemning service that happens in places that are not your neighborhood. But it is funny to me that we struggle so much with the idea that we as Christians are called to our neighbors. God's people have always been called to seek the welfare of the city in which God has placed them. That phrase I just used may sound familiar. It comes from Jeremiah 29. Most of you are probably familiar with Jeremiah 29:11, and more familiar with that than Jeremiah 29:7. Your ears perk up when you hear 29:11. You may have even quoted it at some point: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare, and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."

However, to properly understand that famous verse you have to contend with all that comes before including this idea in verse 7 that we should, "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."

To better understand this call to seek the welfare of your neighborhood, let's take a moment to step back in time, recall the Sunday school flannelgraph lessons of our youth, and remember where we are in the biblical narrative. You remember that after King David Israel was led by a series of kings who, for the most part led God's people further and further away from Him. Eventually, God begins sending prophets to warn his people that a reckoning is coming. The freedom, the peace, the liberty they have enjoyed will come to an end. Through prophets like Isaiah, God warns Israel that they will be carted off into exile, but that even during these dire circumstances God Himself will preserve a remnant. He will provide for His people; He will protect His people; He will keep His promises to Israel, and one day through Israel the Messiah will come.

Enter Jeremiah. Jeremiah is writing over a period of years prior to the exile and then during it. Chapter 29 takes place after God's people have been forcibly taken from Jerusalem and have been relocated to Babylon. Now, after getting there a false prophet named Hananiah comes to God's people in captivity claiming to be a prophet with good news. "The captivity will only last two years," he says. And the people rejoice. This is great news! Their hardship and burden is almost at an end. "Don't bother unpacking, honey. We're heading home soon" The only problem is it's a lie. God sends Jeremiah to Hananiah with words of condemnation. Hananiah may have given the people of Israel hope, but when they find out it is a false hope the burden of being in exile will be all the worse. And worst of all, he has spoken lies in the Name of the Lord God Almighty. Through Jeremiah, the LORD condemns Hananiah and says, "Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth. This year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the LORD." And in that same year, Hananiah dies.

Now, in chapter 29, it's time to break the bad news to God's people in captivity. This won't last two years, like Hananiah told you. It will last 70. And while the temptation to look beyond Babylon to a land flowing with milk and honey is great, they are paradoxically told to lean into the captivity, because that's part of the plan.

Here is the letter God sends His people in captivity: "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 their 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 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 thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream. For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in My Name. I did not send them, declares the LORD. For thus says the LORD: When 70 years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you My promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare, and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'"

You see, the Israelites are not called to look elsewhere for God's plans to be worked out in the world, but in the very place He put them. "Pray to Me," He says, "worship Me, but make that place a better place while you are there. Seek the welfare of the city."

And remember, this will last 70 years—a lifetime—there is a good chance that none of the original hearers will be alive when it is time to return to Jerusalem. With that in mind God is telling His people, "Don't fight or ignore the surrounding culture, work for the betterment of it. Live your lives in dedication to the Lord your God and in so doing seek the welfare of the city."

And if you think through the lexicon of Sunday school lessons from your childhood, floating through the back of your brain, you will realize that is exactly what they did. Some of your favorite stories come from this time period and are examples of what happens when God's people seek the welfare of the city.

Think back to Daniel and the lion's den, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In both cases you have examples of God's people seeking the welfare of the city even when the city was not seeking their welfare. They rose to the top not by rebelling, or by wringing their hands, but by doing the very best job they could—by helping the people around them to succeed, by seeking the welfare of the city. Don't get me wrong; they drew a line in the sand. When they were told to pray to false idols, they refused, but even in refusing they continued to seek the welfare of the city.

Ask yourselves, why, in both cases, was the king so upset about the prospect of putting them to death. It certainly wasn't because he felt it was wrong. It was because they had benefited the city, and the king himself so much. He realized that harming them would harm himself and his people. This is the call God consistently has to His people. Seek the welfare of the city. "You aren't there by accident," He says. "I put you there so that you can be a blessing."

Don Everts in his book, The Hopeful Neighborhood, notes this call to seek the welfare of the city. He talks about the call to use the gifts God has given us in order bless those around us. Don writes: "We see a memorable echo of this call to avail ourselves of the gifts God entrust to us in Jesus' parable of the talents. The faithful servants are those who use the money (gifts) entrusted to them by their master to do business. And the unfaithful servant simply buried what his master had given him. Jesus is inviting His disciples to behold the many gifts God has entrusted into their hands.

"And when we read the rest of the New Testament, it is appears that's exactly what they did. The early church was alive with the use of gifts. Whether those gifts were money (Acts 2:43-47), land (Acts 4:32-37), spiritual gifts (Acts 6:8), leadership abilities (Acts 15:1-21), visions (Acts 10), other people (Acts 6:1-7), or the greatest gift of all—the Gospel of Jesus (Acts 2:14-36), the early church responded to Jesus' call to use every gift God had given them."

We even hear Peter call Christian exiles facing persecution to this same ideal in his first letter. Peter writes: "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."

And this is how Christians have lived throughout history. They have sought the welfare of the city. They put their churches in every neighborhood and worshiped with their neighbors there. When they plagues swept the land, they stayed and cared for their neighbors regardless of what other did. Christians built schools for their neighbors, hospitals, orphanages, food pantries, all the while proclaiming the Gospel, giving an answer for the hope that is within them.

We have a rich history of living into God's call to seek the welfare of the city. This is why I find it so confusing that so many people do not recognize the call God has placed on them to serve their neighbor, right where they are, in their neighborhood. The Lord God loves your neighbors—even the ones that annoy you. He cares so much for them that He sent His Son to die and rise again for them—for all of them. For the thief, the bigot, the liberal, the conservative, the one with the manicured lawn who judges your overgrown lawn, and the one who has let their property become overgrown and run down. He cares for all of them. He cares so much that He called you and He placed you in that neighborhood to seek its welfare.

It can be tempting for us as Christians, sure of our salvation in Christ alone, to focus on the resurrection to the exclusion of that which is happening here and now. But that certain hope in the future is exactly what gives us the ability to use our God-given gifts for the sake of others in the here and now. Because God really does know the plans He has for us. When He uttered those words to Jeremiah thousands of years ago, He wasn't talking to an individual; He was speaking to His people, all of them, His children. And the plan was to ensure that Israel prospered so the Messiah could come, to be born in a manger, live the perfect life, die, and rise again, so that through Jesus God's people could become His children. And now as secure members of God's family, those children could be placed all around the globe throughout time to be His light to the world, used to invite others into the family.

In Jesus, God has made you His child, and He has called you to be a light right where you are, in your neighborhood, seeking the welfare of the city. Amen.

Reflections for September 26, 2021

Title: Seek the Welfare of the Neighborhood

Mark Eischer: And now here's Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm visiting with Don Everts, a writer with Lutheran Hour Ministries and the author of the book, The Hopeful Neighborhood. Welcome back, Don.

Don Everts: I love being with you, Mike.

Mike Zeigler: Also, joining us is Jennifer Prophete. She's the director of community programming with Lutheran Hour Ministries. Welcome back, Jennifer.

Jennifer Prophete: It's nice to be here. Thank you.

Mike Zeigler: Okay. Both of you have been learning about how many practicing Christians volunteer in their neighborhoods to help raise the overall wellbeing of their neighbors. But could you give us some specific examples of projects, of things that are going on that you're familiar with, of efforts to pursue the common good?

Jennifer Prophete: One is a community garden in a place where the city had torn down a building. And instead of saying, "Oh, this is an eyesore." One neighbor said, "What can we do to make this place more beautiful?" And so they started a garden. They put cut flowers in. So then they could take those flowers and share it with shut-ins or other people in their neighborhood.

Don Everts: Yeah. It can be little things. I remember early in the quarantine, I got a little sheet of paper on my door from a neighbor that I know is a believer. And he was basically offering, "I'm willing to shop for anyone who needs it. Here's how I will sanitize and wash my hands." But he was just offering for, in that season when we couldn't leave our homes or you weren't sure. I have some friends in Fresno who a group of neighbors got together, believers, and employment is a real issue in their neighborhoods. So they started a business in the neighborhood to employ people. So, we've seen people love their neighbors in little ways and in big ways.

Jennifer Prophete: Or in big ways, yeah.

Mike Zeigler: You've learned that a lot of Christians do volunteer their time in this way, not just in their church, but outside in the neighborhood, in the community. And from what I've seen, three out of four of those Christians said that the activity—seeking their neighborhoods' wellbeing—actually helped them grow closer to God. Why do you think that is?

Don Everts: When we are loving our neighbors in a practical way, we're living as we were wired to live. And I will say from experience, if loving your neighbors involves some risk or kind of getting out of your comfort zone a little bit, that does do wonders for your prayer life as well. It makes you cling to God a little more to do something that maybe you're not used to doing.

Mike Zeigler: In my self-talk something that I've been trying to replace whatever thoughts are there with biblical thoughts, one of them is "I am just a small but important part of this community." And that's so good, because it helps bring you down a notch if you need to be brought down, but it helps bring you up to that I'm just a small part of this, but I have an important role to play, but I'm a part of something. It's not about me, standing out or whatever. So keep that passage in mind, Jeremiah 29: seeking the wellbeing or the shalom of a neighborhood. What does that mean?

Don Everts: The short version would be what it means to pursue shalom is more than any of us think. Because we tend to think maybe in narrow kinds of ways. So maybe some of us read, seek the welfare of the city, and we think, "So love the people, and want there to be healthy people." And other people might hear it and think, "Well, the wellbeing of the city, so you mean the infrastructure of the city and its systems and its government." And other people might hear it—just because of what they care about—and seek the welfare of the city. "So, you mean, take care of the parks and the streets and the air quality," et cetera, et cetera.

Shalom is when everything is put to rights, but when it's all humming. And so when we've been talking about helping Christians join with their neighbors to pursue the wellbeing of their neighborhood, we've come up with some tools to try to help us all kind of pull off blinders, kind of to help all of us have a more thorough, more robust kind of fully ...

Mike Zeigler: Descriptive.

Don Everts: Descriptive view of that. So we developed this thing, maybe Jennifer can unpack it for us, but we call it, the "wellbeing window." And so it's kind of a simple tool to help all of us open our eyes wider, to think about just different parts of a neighborhood's wellbeing.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah. So tell us about the wellbeing window.

Jennifer Prophete: Sure. I will. And I'll just say that you can find this described in The Hopeful Neighborhood Field Guide as really kind of a practical tool of how we see and do these projects, but the ...

Mike Zeigler: This is another book that I know Don helped write, and then Tony Cook whom we also work with, are authors of this book.

Jennifer Prophete: Exactly. Yeah. And this book is not just a book, but also has accompanying videos that kind of can show you some of these things. So the wellbeing window is, think about a window with panes. So it's got four quadrants. One is people, one is relationships, environment, and systems, and then just like a window within each of those quadrants, there's further divisions to kind of help you understand it.

Mike Zeigler: This project would help us look through that window and imagine possibilities. How does that work? How would this help you imagine possibilities for your neighborhood?

Don Everts: It gets me thinking. It has gotten me thinking about things I hadn't thought about before. I've thought a lot about sidewalks now: where sidewalks are, and sidewalks aren't. And are they maintained? Are they taken care of it, et cetera? It's kind of like how deep the rabbit hole goes. Looking through the wellbeing window has helped me think about my neighborhood in totally different ways and things that I wasn't thinking about before. And then that's just connected, you just start imagining different things. And I start thinking about what would it be like because my neighborhood is sidewalk poor.

Mike Zeigler: That's right, I've been to your neighborhood.

Don Everts: You've been, you know.

Mike Zeigler: There really aren't sidewalks there.

Don Everts: And so thinking about ...

Mike Zeigler: You've got to walk in the street.

Don Everts: We do, that's right.

Jennifer Prophete: I only buy houses in neighborhoods that have sidewalks.

Don Everts: See, and I'd never thought about it before, so it makes me dream or imagine what could be different in my neighborhood. I had never before looking through the window, I had never thought, "What would it look like if my neighborhood were more walkable?" I never thought about that. But now I do. And so I think it has that effect that thinking about these different things, one of them is going to kind of strike you in a different way and make you imagine wellbeing. "What would it be like if there was more cultural health in my neighborhood?" I've never thought about that. I've never dreamed. And that process, it kind of ignites curiosity, and that's what imagination is all about. And so the more nuanced our thinking about wellbeing, the more we start imagining different things. And probably among one of those is going to be something that you're like, "I actually want to make that happen. How could my neighbors and I help make that happen?"

Jennifer Prophete: You might remember from previous conversations that we had, that we have a three-step process for The Hopeful Neighborhood Project. And the first one, which we dove into a lot more last time is, discover the gifts. And the second one is, imagine the possibilities. Like Don was saying, that idea, once you've kind of discovered the gifts, not just of yourself, but also your neighborhood, it's sort of now you have this table full of things, and you need to imagine the possibilities. So the wellbeing window then helps you kind of organize those in a way, and we challenge people to imagine possibilities in each of the different windows, using the gifts that they find in their neighborhood, that then we can get to the third step, which is pursue the common good, which is actually choosing one of those possibilities and doing it.

Mike Zeigler: Well, we invited Don and Jennifer here to be a window into these greater resources that Lutheran Hour Ministries offers. And so check out the book, The Hopeful Neighborhood and The Hopeful Neighborhood Field Guide, and imagine the possibilities. It might just be getting groceries for somebody in your neighborhood or reading at the local school or starting a business. It could be any of those, but we want to help you start somewhere. Thanks for joining us, Don and Jennifer.

Jennifer Prophete: Thank you.

Don Everts: Thank you.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness" arr. Barry Bobb (© 2010 Concordia Publishing House)

"Triune God, Be Thou Our Stay" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

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