“Seek the Shalom of the City”

Scripture – Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, October 2, 2022


I can no longer read this letter from Jeremiah without seeing it inscribed in red and golden yellow and deep indigo. That’s how these words appear on a banner that hangs behind the communion table at Beacon, a new worshiping community of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). A decade ago, a historic congregation closed its doors, leaving an empty church building in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. So two pastors fresh out of seminary began to imagine a new congregation that could “be and proclaim the good news” of Jesus Christ in this corner of the city.[1]

Now Kensington is not a place most of us would choose to settle. It has the reputation of being one of “those neighborhoods” … you know — the ones you avoid after dark. Following the loss of its industries in the 1960s, Kensington suffered from dis-investment and neglect. It is now known elsewhere in the city for its high rates of gun violence and drug use. Aside from the gentrification happening along its fringes, it’s not seen as the kind of place you would want to build a house to live in, to plant a garden from which to eat. But that’s exactly what the leadership of Beacon felt called to do. They felt called to take up residence in this socially-fractured community and to share the love of Christ in concrete ways.

Early in its ministry this fledgling congregation found its sense of call in these words from Jeremiah. So they painted them on a banner that stretches from ceiling to floor at the front of their gathering space. Sometimes, Jeremiah’s words are a focal point; other times they are a backdrop. But, always, they are present in red and yellow and blue — grounding the community’s witness in the call of God: 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.


Of course, this congregation in Kensington is quite different from the community that first heard these words. The recipients of Jeremiah’s letter were Judean exiles who had been forcibly removed from their homeland. In the 6th century BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem. He destroyed the city; he demolished the temple; he deported Jerusalem’s inhabitants. The Jewish elite — priests, prophets, political leaders — were marched 900 miles to Babylon, to the heart of the empire.[2] Those who survived the trek across the desert faced a future in a foreign land, far from anything they had ever known.

To this traumatized remnant, Jeremiah wrote a letter with some surprising instructions: Thus says the Lord of hosts … Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have 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.

These were not the instructions the exiles hoped to hear. After the forced migration to Babylon, the exiles wanted some assurance that they’d be going home. They wanted to hear: Return. Rebuild. Restart your lives in Jerusalem. Instead, they received a different word: Settle in. Make a new home. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.

No, these were not the instructions the exiles longed to hear. And, yet, Jeremiah’s letter also conveyed a word of promise; it bore a word of hope. Because it said something about God’s intention for this dislocated and despairing community. It said something about God’s intention for the world.

Even in that moment — even in the most dire of circumstances — God desired the covenant community to flourish. And, so, God — through the prophet Jeremiah — commanded the covenant community to do what is necessary to create a life: Build homes and rest in the security they provide. Plant gardens and enjoy the abundance they produce. Marry and bear children, and have your children marry and bear children. Grow and thrive and enjoy the blessings of life, God said.

Though the context of this word from the Lord might surprise us, the content should not. For God has always desired human flourishing. This intent is clear from the beginning — from the first pages of our sacred story. There we read that God created humankind in the divine image, telling us for the first (though not the last) time: Be fruitful and multiply. There we read that God set the first human beings in Eden, telling us for the first (though not the last) time to till the garden and to eat the fruit it yields.

Jeremiah’s letter assured the covenant community that — though their circumstances had changed — God’s desire for them had not. The Lord still yearned for their welfare. And, so, God gave them a vocation: Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.

The Hebrew word that appears three times in this sentence is one with which you might be familiar. It is shalom. God commands the community: seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom. Our translation, as you’ve heard many times now, renders shalom as ‘welfare.’ Others choose ‘peace and prosperity’ (CEB, NIV) or, simply, ‘peace’ (KJV). All are correct. None are complete. For the English language cannot capture the fullness of this Hebrew word. Shalom conveys a state of wholeness, of well-being. It is more than the peace we experience in the absence of war; it is the peace that follows the presence of justice. Shalom is possible when social relationships are characterized by fairness and mutuality, not by fear and malice. Shalom is possible when all people have what they need to flourish.

God wants the exiles living in Babylon to experience the blessing of shalom. But God also wants others to experience the blessing of shalom. That’s why the Lord gives the covenant community a vocation: Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you. Seek the welfare, the prosperity, the peace of the city where I have sent you.


Our circumstances are quite different from those of the community who first heard these words. Most of us gathered here do not know personally the pain of displacement — of being forced from home and homeland. Although some in our city do know this trauma first-hand. Most of us have been spared the horrors of war, at least war that rages on our own shores. Some in our city have not been spared. And, yet — though circumstances differ across cities and centuries — our vocation is the same: Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you. Seek the welfare, the prosperity, the peace of the city where I have sent you.

This is the enduring call on the covenant community: to seek justice and peace in the places we are sent, so that — bit by bit — the world begins to look more like God’s dream for creation. Whether serving in a city that is under attack, or a city that is in the path of a storm, or a city that is struggling with the all-too-common crises of gun violence and drug abuse and poverty and hunger, we too are called to seek shalom. For, I believe, God still desires humanity to flourish. I believe God still works through people of faith to realize this vision of wholeness.

This calling will look different depending on the particular places God sends us. For that new worshiping community in Kensington — the one that painted Jeremiah’s words above their communion table — seeking shalom looks like welcoming neighborhood children into their storytelling studio for workshops that foster creative expression and improve literacy. For our community here at Westminster it looks like First Friday Walks for Justice & Peace, and resettling Afghan refugees, and providing plots for our neighbors to grow gardens.

For a congregation in San Francisco, it looks like sharing macaroni and fresh produce and jars of peanut butter with those who are hungry. Every Friday afternoon this community of faith throws open its doors and welcomes the neighborhood inside. But it hasn’t always been that way. The St. Gregory of Nyssa Food Pantry began when an unlikely disciple began asking questions about communion.[3]

Sara Miles was an avowed atheist. But, shortly after settling in San Francisco, she wandered into an Episcopal Church and stayed for worship. Sara would tell you it was her journalist’s curiosity that led her into that sanctuary. Still, despite her long-held belief that Christians were just a bunch of religious nuts, she went forward when it was time for communion. And, when she received the bread, something surprising happened: she found herself transformed. Week after week, Sara returned to partake of the bread and the cup — to satisfy her spiritual hunger. Before long, she was helping serve communion to others.

That’s when Sara started to imagine a different crowd at the table.

St. Gregory of Nyssa was known for its innovative liturgies and its commitment to practicing the radical welcome of Christ’s table. They’d even commissioned a new altar, which was inscribed with a quote from a 7th century Christian mystic: “Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy. All must be equal for you to love and serve.”[4]

But — though all were welcome to join them at the feast — the congregation had done little to share the feast with their neighbors. Like many churches, St. Gregory of Nyssa was located in the city. But it didn’t dwell in the city. Until Sara Miles had a vision for the table.

Sara lived in an area where almost all her daughter’s classmates were eligible for free lunch. And — on her 30-minute walk to St. Gregory’s — she passed through another neighborhood dominated by the city’s second-worst housing projects. Access to healthy food was becoming more and more of a crisis in increasingly expensive San Francisco. As she realized the dimensions of food insecurity in her city, a picture formed in Sara’s mind: “It was communion … but with fresh groceries instead of bread and wine … With the literal bread of life served from the same table as the bread of heaven.”[5] Sara called the Food Bank, and proposed a new site for a pantry. And the vision began to take shape.

Sara and a team of volunteers would set up a ring of folding tables around the altar at St. Gregory’s every Friday afternoon. They’d lay out their prettiest communion cloths, then stack the tables high with celery and apples and potatoes; cereal and rice and pasta. And they would open the doors.

It didn’t take long for news of the Food Pantry to spread. Mere months after this congregation began this ministry, there would be a line forming outside the church hours before the pantry opened. While other volunteers finished unpacking the groceries, Sara would go outside and talk with her neighbors. There were extended Latino families and black women with grandchildren in tow; immigrants from China and Russia and Moldova; people experiencing homelessness and people struggling with addiction. “Here was the city I lived in, at last,” Sara wrote of the people waiting outside. “Here was the city I lived in, at last.”[6]

Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you, says the Lord. Whether it is by sharing your bread with the hungry or teaching children to read; by welcoming refugees or working to end gun violence, seek the welfare, the prosperity, the peace of the place where I have sent you. Friends, this is our vocation as people of faith, because this is God’s desire for the world: Wholeness. Well-being. Peace. For us. And for our neighbors. And, so — through our witness — let us work for shalom in the places we are sent. So that — bit-by-bit — the world begins to look more like God’s dream for creation.


Prayers of the People

Gregory Knox Jones


Eternal God, on this day when Christians around the globe gather at tables to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we remember how Jesus gathered in an upper room with his closest friends to eat the Passover meal. Sensing that these were the waning hours of his life, he highlighted his paramount teachings that they were never to forget. He called on them to love one another as he loved them and to express their devotion by serving one another with empathy and grace.

Generous God, may we be filled with your benevolent Spirit so that we are ever ready to treat each person we meet with dignity, to welcome others with a generous spirit, to forgive those who wrong us, and to share the burden of those struggling with weights too heavy to bear alone.

Loving God, as we pray amid the beauty of our sanctuary, and prepare to receive the bread and wine from your table we are mindful that many have had their lives thrown into turmoil. We pray for those whose tables have been swept away by hurricanes and floods, and for those whose tables have been demolished by bombs that rain down.

Draw them close to you so that they may sense your constant presence as they trudge through dark and dreadful valleys.  Grant them the awareness that you are with them each step of the way in the difficult days ahead. May they find healing in their tears, strength to cope with their pain, and determination to forge ahead despite the obstacles in their path.

Mighty God, you are a God of resurrection, who generates light out of darkness and yanks life from the jaws of death, we pray that they may never lose hope for a better day.

Everlasting God, as we break bread with one another–a variety of breads that reminds us of different cultures, colors, and customs – remind us that we are one human family, and that you command us to strive for the values that generate opportunities for all to thrive, and the ideals that spread well-being, peace, shalom.

Now, hear us as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray together, saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.


[1] https://www.thewordatbeacon.org/

[2]  Alphonetta Wine, “Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7,” workingpreacher.org.

[3] The illustration that follows includes direct quotes and paraphrased text from: Sara Miles, Take This Bread (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).

[4] ibid, 95.

[5] ibid, 104.

[6] ibid, 127.