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Relational Mission

Jeremiah 29:4-14 Common English Bible (CEB)

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. Don’t pay attention to your dreams. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, declares the Lord.

The Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile,[a] declares the Lord.


Welcome, welcome friends. We are continuing in week two of our “rethinking mission” sermon series. Last week Shelby talked about her own journey in understanding mission. She shared stories about her movement away from seeing mission and the Great Commission as an exchange of services--the more privileged helping out those with less resources. She shared stories about her own realization that making disciples wasn’t simply about belief, but about being transformed and transforming others so that all can experience Shalom, wholeness, justice.

Shelby talked about seeing mission as a much more relational and dynamic Christian mindset--a mindset, as post-colonial scholar David Bosch says, that is “a decisive and irrevocable turning to both God and neighbor,” recognizing “injustice, suffering, oppression and the plight of those fallen by the wayside.” It isn’t about solving everyone’s problems, but knowing and understanding the lives of all of God’s people and being present with each other in life, in relationships.

That’s “rethinking mission” week one.

We are now into week two, ready to build relationships and cross our own restrictive boundaries to get there. But, where is “there?” Where are these people and relationships we’re supposed to be building and developing? Like Shelby’s sermon last week, do we travel to another country? Do we reach out to folks at work? Do we join a new “Meet Up”? Do we commit to going to the dog yard every week? Do we volunteer for the PTA? Do we sign up for a trip exploring different cultures? Different places? Do we get a pen-pal? Do we reconnect with family members separated by miles or arguments? Do we join up with folks assisting in or suffering from the latest American crisis? Do we get overwhelmed at the all the different places of potential for relationships, for transformation, for listening and loving and pursuing justice?

The thing about thinking of mission and the great commission as relational is that our world is so, so big. And more than ever it is so, so connected. And it can be overwhelming.

Did you know you can quantify this aspect of being overwhelmed? Overwhelmed by the connections, the relationships, the demands of social participation? It’s called the Dunbar Number. The Dunbar Number.

In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar made the claim based on his research that there is actually a cognitive limit to the number of people with which we can maintain a stable social relationship. Our brains cannot physically maintain an infinite amount of relationships--our primate brain size just won’t have it.

Dr. Dunbar claimed that the average amount of relationships humans can maintain is 150--ranging from 100 to 250. The average is 150 relationships! These relationships, Dunbar describes, are the type where “you would not feel embarrassed about joining [that person] uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” Now, some of you don’t hang out at bars. But you get the idea. It’s a person that if you saw them in public, you would be able to chat with them comfortably. Ok.

But Dr. Dunbar has an additional number that we also need to talk about. His research points to the human ability to maintain ONLY FIVE CLOSE relationships. Whoa. Of course, this again is an average. Quality matters more than quantity. But we can only maintain about five close, close relationships.

But if our mission in the world, our great commission, is relational, what does this mean? If the way we are to be Christians in the world, if the way we are to serve, transform, and partner with God’s Shalom in the world is relational, what does this mean?

It means we have limits. We have potential, but we also have guard rails. It means our mission in the world is really not to the whole world, it is to where God has planted us. It is not overwhelming, it is particular. It is not reckless, it is contextual.

If Shelby answered the what question of mission last week, this week we are looking at the where. Where does God ask you and you and you and you to enter into relationships that transform you, your neighbor, and the world we live in together? It can’t be everywhere--so where?

So we arrive now at our Jeremiah 29 text for today.

The people in this portion of the book of Jeremiah are exiles from Israel. They have been taken by the Babylonian empire from Jerusalem and their homes and placed in the city of Babylon. They miss their home. They are questioning the purpose in their lives. The relationships they had at home have been ripped apart--regions, towns, and families have been separated, some allowed to stay in Israel, some forced to leave. They are not erroring on building too many relationships, these people are zeroing in on the relationships they left and the ones they hope to get back to very, very soon. They are laser focused on getting home, back into those comfortable relationships with people they know and love well. I don’t really blame them.

And the prophets and dreamers around them are affirming this desire. Don’t get too comfortable, they say.

BUT today we hear in our passage from the prophet Jeremiah, who happens to have been one of the ones left back in Israel, we hear him admonishing the people to ignore those false prophets and dreamers among them. Those false prophets and dreamers are saying that the exiles need to cut ties with Babylon; they need to focus on being rescued and sent home. The prophets are basically saying to the exiles: don’t make relationships here--not with the people, the land, the government, nothing.

But the prophet Jeremiah is saying the exact opposite in our passage today. Let me read some of it again: The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

The prophet Jeremiah is answering this “where” question: Where are they to build relationships and live as God’s people? In Babylon. In the “city where I have sent you.” God has placed them in this particular place, at this particular time and they are to build relationships--build houses, build marriages, build sustainable economies. They are to promote the welfare, the Shalom, of the city where God has sent them.

This is clear. This is contextual. This is particular. This is Dunbar number-friendly. The Lord is very clearly saying through Jeremiah, “Here are your people and here is your place, cultivate Shalom here.” These people cannot be stretched out across the middle east--God is telling them to hunker down and get focused on who God is calling them to love.

Sometimes I ache for a very, very clear command such as this. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a smaller world, knowing fewer people, traveling shorter distances. Sometimes I crave the naivete of not living in a global world.

Because having access to the whole world, to cultivate relationships, to experience shalom, to participate in God’s transformative power, that makes my Dunbar number quiver and quake! I think for some of us, it makes us stop trying before we even get started. For others, it means we build so many relationships that we cannot maintain any of them.

We are in an interesting time in history where we’re pushing up against what we can do as humans in the face of endless possibilities. Endless possibilities to see devastation but also endless possibilities to participate in Shalom, in creating wholeness and flourishing. We witness through our global connections numerous tragic relationships and situations and also numerous possibilities to build relationships, meet new people, send aid, hear stories of suffering and stories of salvation.

Before us is an entire world and very few people are telling us, especially in Christian circles, that that entire world is not YOUR world, it’s God’s. And God says settle down.

Settle down?

That is what the prophet Jeremiah told the people in Babylon--thousands of years ago in a very different place and different circumstances, but I think it does still ring true, no matter the distance and differences. Settle down.

So in this second week of our mission series, I want us to listen to God through the prophet Jeremiah--not to Facebook, or the evening news, or the many emails in your inbox screaming for attention and for your intervention and help. I want us to listen to the wisdom of Jeremiah: promote the welfare of where God has sent you, called you, directed you.

Where has God sent you? What city (or perhaps insert another word: neighborhood, group, situation) has God sent you into?

Maybe you’ve been hiding? Overwhelmed by the needs, the demands of a hurting world? Get up and go seek the welfare of the place God has sent you. Have you been overwhelmed because you can’t be everywhere at once. You need to be where God has sent you, not straddled across the entire world. Settle down. Promote the welfare of the city where God has placed YOU.

For this church, we have felt from the very beginning a strong sense of the WHERE. Our sense of where God is asking us to seek shalom and welfare is right here, in our neighborhoods. If you haven’t heard us say it out loud recently, our mission statement for this congregation is to invite everyone to explore the living God in our neighborhoods. This is where God has called us, to seek the shalom and welfare and wholeness of these neighborhoods.

So if you attend Ormewood Church, I hope you spend a good amount of your Dunbar number in your neighborhood--seeking the flourishing of all its people, looking for ways to promote justice, to usher in Shalom. And if you don’t, Shelby is going to give us some strategies next week on how to be rooted and intertwined in the wellbeing of our community.

And some of you also have Jeremiah speaking to you, but for you, it is of other “cities” or places in your life where you are called to seek peace and justice. For some of you, you feel God’s call to seek the welfare of certain places, or injustices, or relationships outside of this neighborhood. Do the good work, wherever it is, as long as you are heeding the direction of the one who guided the exiles in Babylon and who will guide us as we seek Shalom of all God’s creatures even now.


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