Growing in Love of God and Neighbor

Changing Circumstances

Year C, Proper 23
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Mr. Kyle Cuperwich
Trinity Episcopal Church
Moorestown, New Jersey
October 13, 2019

I’m honored to be here once again, preaching from this pulpit and diving into God’s word with you. I return to you this Sunday as a student, having officially began pursuing a master’s degree in Anglican Studies at THE General Episcopal Seminary in the City of New York.

For those who may not know, this seminary is one that is rich in history.  It was established in 1817 by an act of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church (hence its name, General Seminary).  It is the oldest continually operating seminary in the worldwide Anglican Communion. When you visit the campus in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, you’ll see grand buildings modeled after Oxford University in England. For generations, General was considered a leading voice in Anglican studies, theology, practice, and especially liturgy.

In the beginning of this current decade, however, this institution with so much history almost closed its doors for good.  The school found itself in very difficult circumstances.  Debt had risen to $50 million, facilities were in need of major repairs, enrollment was declining and the curriculum needed a new direction. All of these factors led to a series of drastic measures that needed to be taken. Much of the seminary’s historic campus was sold for redevelopment, and a vast number of committed staff personnel were laid off.  Communication broke down between administration, staff, and students, resulting in the resignation of most of the tenured faculty and the withdrawal of most of the students. A remnant was left behind to pick up the pieces of this prestigious institution that had gained a negative reputation and they found difficulty attracting new students.

I had heard stories about General prior to coming into The Episcopal Church. I heard that while it was once highly regarded for its scholarship and resources, it was barely hanging on. As I was contemplating seminaries for my Anglican year, I asked myself, “Why would I want to go to a place like that?” Sure, it is located in the midst of the excitement of New York City, but would I really get anything out of a place that was struggling to survive?

I noticed something, however, when I went for a tour of the campus last fall. Now that I find myself studying their full time, I continue to see it. I see a community that’s not exhausting itself by trying to rebuild a glorious past. I see a community that is choosing to focus on bringing new life and living abundantly in its present circumstances. This choice has led to experimenting with new practices in worship, teaching and the types of courses offered. This choice has led to outreach to those who live on the seminary campus now who have no affiliation with the seminary or the church. This choice has led the seminary to open up its campus for use by outside groups from the neighborhood and beyond, providing a witness through its physical space and history.

General is not living in the past or dreaming about what could be.

It’s choosing to bring life with what God has given it in the circumstances in which it finds itself.

As I studied in this community for the past week and reflected on the lectionary passages, the words of Jeremiah suddenly came to life for me. The people of Judah who Jeremiah was addressing had seen themselves fall into a turbulent and difficult circumstance. This was God’s chosen people: favored by God and given a promised home by God. They were promised God’s protection and their great ruler, King David, was promised a throne forever. Yet they find themselves uprooted from that promised home, 900 miles away in Babylon, living among different people with a new language, new customs, new religion, and a new emperor. To top it all off, contrary to popular belief, Jeremiah says, “Get used to this situation, because you aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Being in this place of such drastic change of circumstance can lead to some deep and even painful questions. I can imagine God’s people asking themselves, “What about the promises that were made to us? What about our reputation? Will we survive?  Will our story live on?

Does God even care?

The natural reaction for us as human beings in this place is to retreat by keeping to ourselves, staying with those like us for purity and protection, and trying and trying to rebuild a past we dream of, only to become exhausted by our efforts. Yet through Jeremiah’s words, we can hear him saying to God’s people, “The only way you’re going to survive this new circumstance is to do the exact opposite of what feels natural.

For Jeremiah, this means God’s people needed to build homes, grow crops, start families, get involved in their city and pray for it. Instead of trying to replicate the past by rebuilding the glory days, focus on bringing life with what God has given you in your new circumstance. That is how you will see God at work.

It can be said that God’s people became stronger as a result of their exile. They truly got to wrestle with God to discern with who God is and how God works. When we read the Scriptures written after their exile experience, we can recognize a humbler tone in the text. Without the grand temple to worship God in Jerusalem, God’s people saw that God can be worshiped and seen anywhere that they gather in God’s name, even among a strange land with strange people.

As we contemplate Jeremiah’s words in our time, we can realize that they are relevant for followers of Jesus today. The body of Christ you and I are part of rapidly finds itself in very different circumstances than in previous generations. No longer is the church the dominant choice for spirituality. No longer can we assume that everybody knows who this Jesus guy is. We find ourselves increasingly on the margins, with less resources and less people. In this situation, we can do two things. We can try to rebuild the past we dream about, exhausting ourselves trying to rebuild those glory days, or we could focus on bringing life in the circumstances we find ourselves in with what God has given us. I see Trinity choosing to bring life: through the Renewal Works program, through new educational and small group opportunities led by laity, through new outreach and mission experiences being offered.

I see General Seminary choosing to bring life and seeing results. This semester, I am part of an incoming class of thirty-one new students, the largest incoming class in five years. Many of us, myself included, were able to receive full or substantial scholarships for our studies.

As you contemplate Jeremiah’s words, how is God calling you this day to help the church bring forth life in its new circumstance? Are you being stretched to take on new positions in ministry? Are you being stretched to take on new spiritual disciplines? Are you being called to let go of habits or traditions that aren’t giving life as they once were? The story that we proclaim as Christians says that God’s life-giving power transcends circumstance. As we see Jesus healing the lepers in our Gospel passage for today, we see that God works no matter who you are or where you’re from. The story of Easter reminds us that not even the circumstance of death could stop God’s life-giving power.

May we all be challenged to work with God to bring forth new life wherever and however we may find ourselves. Amen.

    

 

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