Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7
Pentecost 18, Ordinary 28
October 13, 2019
Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon
Elizabeth Winslea, pastor
It was the end of times. It was the end time. Life was over. The people of Israel had experienced a seismic shift - their world had rocked with the Babylonian army that flooded in like a tsunami wave and toppled over every structure and institution that they had held dear.
The chief leaders of government and religion had been taken away first. Then all those trained and educated for trades - artisans, workers, scribes. The full infrastructure of a culture and place completely dismantled. And there they were, hauled off to a foreign land - what’s worse, to the land of the people who had taken them by force.
For all intents and purposes, they were prisoners. They had their daily freedoms - but psychologically, they were trapped and held by forces beyond their control. They were outraged. They were wanting revenge, or at least escape. They were wanting a message of hope in the form of someone telling them how they could get back home again.
And Jeremiah tells them - Friends, perhaps you should think about this new place as home. Don’t see yourselves as campers, nomads who stumbled in a strange land. Rather, take your tents down and build houses. Quit eating from disaster rations and plant a garden. Don’t wait to raise a family - but have children and grandchildren and bless them.
And after you have that underway, look about yourselves and see what else needs to be done. See what help the city needs, what the people around you are needing, you know, your captors.
Perhaps there’s school that needs support. Or the medical clinic. Maybe you could figure out how to share your wealth with those most in need - throughout the area, including your captors.
In other words, Jeremiah says, figure out how to make this place your home. Settle and make it the best home you can, given the circumstances.
Ignore how you got there. Stop pushing against an outcome that has already happened. Instead, figure out how you are going to express with your daily choices what and who you value. How you are going to live your life in accordance with your faith and the ethical and moral compass that provides.
I think, had I seen everything I had worked for and everything I love and the whole way of life I took for granted torn asunder, I think I might have had a hard time hearing these words from Jeremiah. I think they might have stung a bit for me.
‘He wants me to give up? He wants me not only to stop struggling against my captors, but he wants me to work for their well-being?
No. No. It’s too much. I’ve given too much already, thank you very much. I’m going to pass on this great vision of yours, Jeremiah.’
Can you imagine how difficult it would have been to hear this prophet’s words? Wouldn’t you have worried that it was all over? That Jeremiah was suggesting that God was done with the land of Israel. That all the stories of being children of God, and blessed by God, that all of those stories were wrong? Wouldn’t it have felt like he undermined everything you had presumed about your life and about your purpose?
Poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes about Autumn and the autumn of our spirits:
The leaves fall and fall,
and then the colors wander off,
and then comes November's cold, its grayness,
all reduced to shades of gray, then winter.
First there is some loss, and then there is some loss.
The birches and maples and beeches
stand silently without birds, without regret.
They are not counting. They are not trying.
Once you have let go of all you are fond of
you are empty enough to listen
for a presence only absence can reveal.
The people of Israel are facing the autumn of their spirits. They have let go of all they are fond of, of all that had defined them, and out of that emptiness Jeremiah pleads that they should start growing roots right where they are. The absence in their lives reveals a message that is startling at best.
It shows them that they are more than their temple and their given land. That there is more that defines them than these elements. That indeed when they are emptied of all that they thought had defined them, they discover a presence, they discover where God is at work in their lives - they are reminded of what they are called to do - visit the sick, help the widow and orphan, protect the most vulnerable, praise God and give thanks in all things.
This is the gift of loss. That even in the heartache and disappointment. Even in the despair and the need for revenge that we can be emptied out and reminded in the absence.
Friends, we are not prisoners of war. But we have been imprisoned by the politics of our nation. For many of us, these last almost three years have felt like forever. And I know that many of us hoped for a great sea change a long while ago.
But the agonies of politics continue to dribble our way. And we find ourselves wanting revenge, seeking answers and wanting to return back home. But, if we are honest with ourselves, if we slow the heart down and stop for a moment, we will recognize that the spin machines of both parties are not going to stop anytime soon. In fact, as hard as it is to hear Jeremiah right now, he is a prophet we should pay close attention to.
Be faithful now. Be faithful here. Be faithful even when the heart will not let you be patient.
One of the gifts of following a major world religion is that it can set your sights on the long game, the big picture, the extended story.
The people of Israel followed Jeremiah’s advice. They settled in and became middle management in the world of Babylon. And slowly the wheels of time turned and eventually they did not need a fearful flight like their ancestors from Egypt. They did not escape as prisoners of war. Eventually, Babylon realized that they had nothing to fear in giving the Hebrews back their freedom. And so, with the blessings of the King of Babylon, they went home not as fugitives in the night but as friends who had earned the respect of the world.
That may not happen exactly in our case - but it may be much closer than we think.
So let us work hard for the common good, be faithful to the call of Godly temperance, and maybe in our gentle bearing we can help heal the wounds of our nation.
Let us plant gardens so that all might eat, build homes so that no one has to live rough, raise families such that all know safety and security - in the name of our Creator, who has so much in mind for us all and for all of creation.
This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on October 13, 2019 at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.