Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles – Jeremiah 29:1-14
Rector’s Report – Annual Parish Meeting
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Uvalde
Twenty-twenty. When I say those two words I’m not sure if I intend them as a statement or a question. A lot of things could be said about 2020, but there is one thing in particular that stands our for me today. We are always discerning our way forward – as individuals, families, and a parish. That’s true in non-pandemic times as well but it seems more so this past year. The past year has asked us to listen more deeply and intensely, and discern what faith, hope, and love look like in these times.
Over the past year that deep listening asked of us many things and we made some hard decisions.
- For a while in-person worship was discontinued and we gathered online to worship, say our prayers, and be with one another
- When we resumed in-person worship we did so with masks and social distancing.
- We no longer exchange the peace with kisses, hugs, and handshakes; we don’t sing during the liturgy; and we celebrate communion with the bread but not the wine.
- Prayer Books were taken out of the church and TV screens were brought in.
- We suspended child care and in-person meetings.
- We let go of plans and expectations for what we would do in 2020.
Though it’s been almost ten months like this it still feels strange. It feels like we have been exiled from our homeland, from the way things used to be, from what was familiar and comfortable and maybe even taken for granted. It feels like we are living in a foreign land, waiting and wanting to go home.
I don’t know when we’ll get to go home. I hope and pray that with the vaccines and continued use of masks and social distancing we can return sooner than later. But I don’t know. So what do we do in the meantime?
The prophet Jeremiah had something to say about this. He wrote a letter to the Israelites after they had been exiled from their homeland and were living in a foreign land. They were in Babylon waiting and wanting to go home and here’s what he said:
4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take 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. 7But 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.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
It’s another way of saying that life has changed, not ended. It’s about finding what faith, hope, and love look like in this land, in this place, and in this time. Build, plant, marry, multiply, seek, pray, and do not decrease. That’s what we did this past year and here’s what it looked like:
- The Church never closed. We gathered in-person, online, and always in our hearts, to worship, pray, and be with one another.
- We wore masks and kept our distance, but we never left one another.
- We made phone calls and sent text messages asking, “How are you? Do you need anything?”
- We celebrated the Eucharist, baptized, married, and commended to God those who had died.
- We learned new technology, increased the quality of our production, and expanded our online presence.
- We greeted familiar faces and welcomed new ones. We connected in new ways and remembered what really matters.
- We prayed for healthcare providers, essential workers, the election of our president, each other, and ourselves.
- We cared for people through the food pantry, Philip’s closet, and the rector’s discretionary fund. We prepared and delivered Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
- We lived as a public face of Christ in Uvalde and on the world wide web.
- We trusted life and God in this foreign land and we did not decrease. We held each other just a bit closer and tighter, even if only in our hearts and desires.
All of this is to say we have not been abandoned and we do not stand alone. The darkness cannot overcome the light of faith, hope, and love. The light will always win. And that light exists in you. You are the light carriers. Without you this place, this community, this world is just a little bit darker. Your presence makes a difference.
And yet, I also know that 2020 has been a year with disappointments, discouragement, frustrations, and anger about what we are not doing and cannot do. I’ve experienced that in you, our parish, and myself.
I wish I could take all that away for you, St. Philip’s, and myself. I wish I could set before you my vision and plans for 2021. But I can’t.
Every year at our Annual Meeting I stand before you and I say, “This is where we are headed. This is what we’re going to do. These are my plans. This is what I am thinking.” But this year? I don’t know. But I do know this. There is one who holds that vision for us. Jeremiah spoke of that one in his letter to the exiles when he wrote:
“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.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
I can’t tell you today what that future looks like but I do trust that it’s there. I can’t tell you today when that future will arrive but I trust that it is coming. I can’t tell you today how that future will happen but I trust that when it does we will be a part of it.
Until that day we must listen even more deeply and intensely. We must keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to one another and to the one who holds our future. We must be attuned to what is happening around us and to what is being asked of us. We must remember in a new way.
So if you’ll indulge me a few moments I want to try something. If you are at home in your bubble with others or if you are here with one in your bubble you can actually do this. If you’re not with a bubble partner you’ll have to just play along with me.
Imagine holding the hand of someone next to you. Touch and be touched. Feel the warmth of her or his hand. Receive her or his hand as a gift, and offer yours as a gift. Imagine exchanging the peace the way we used to. A handshake with eagerness and not fear. Imagine the feeling of being connected and physically touching another human being. Pull that other one in close to you and then squeeze just a bit tighter. Let her or him fully embrace and hold you. Hug just a bit longer than you normally would. Receive peace as their lips kiss your cheek, and then offer your peace. Experience their presence and your shared connection. Hear their hopes and offer yours. Let your presence and connection with one another be your prayer. Look into each other’s eyes. Gaze just a little bit longer than seem appropriate. Know yourselves to be connected. Whisper, “All shall be well,” and hear that whispered in your ear, “Yes, all shall be well.” Feel the breath of those words enter you.
Do you remember what that was like? It’s been a long time, too long, since we did all that. Remember it all, but in a new way. I’m not asking you to just remember the past. I’m asking you to remember the future. Remember it all forward. Remember your life forward. Remember the lives of others forward. Remember the life of this parish forward. Remember our country forward. Remember the future. Remember it all with faith, hope, love, and one another.
If I have any vision at all for this parish in 2021, that’s it. Remembering it forward, remembering the future.
Finally, thank you. Thank you for your support, prayers, and patience this past year. I am grateful for your trust and the privilege of being your priest. There is no one else I’d rather go through a pandemic with than you all. Thank you.