January 30: Exile – How shall we live?

Scripture Reading (The Message) Jeremiah 29:1-14

This is the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to what was left of the elders among the exiles, to the priests and prophets and all the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem, including King Jehoiachin, the queen mother, the government leaders, and all the skilled laborers and craftsmen. The letter was carried by Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah had sent to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The letter said: This is the Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God, to all the exiles I’ve taken from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and make yourselves at home. “Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. “Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away. “Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. “Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.” 8-9 Yes. Believe it or not, this is the Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God: “Don’t let all those so-called preachers and know-it-alls who are all over the place there take you in with their lies. Don’t pay any attention to the fantasies they keep coming up with to please you. They’re a bunch of liars preaching lies—and claiming I sent them! I never sent them, believe me.” God’s Decree! 10-11 This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. 12 “When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen.    13-14 “When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. “Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” God’s Decree. “I’ll turn things around for you. I’ll bring you back from all the countries into which I drove you”—God’s Decree—“bring you home to the place from which I sent you off into exile. You can count on it.

How shall we live?

Seeking God, is seeking goodness. 

The exiles that we experience in our lives – be they pandemics of virus or those of self-doubt, despair or loneliness – will always make it feel that God is far away.  Like insult upon insult, seeking God becomes self-defeating, one more injustice in a sea of unending heartache.  As we explored last week, the Israelites learned to discover God’s presence even in difficult moments, praying Surely God is in this place…Help me notice, in order to rediscover both who, and whose, they were.  (If you wanted to explore this further, there’s a link in my footnotes to a course being offered by the Vancouver School of Theology that might be of interest).[1]  Practicing the presence of God is so vitally important no matter what we’re facing; dwelling in the presence teaches us to recognize God in all things.

Over the last fifty years, prosperity and “relative” peace has greatly influenced our faith, slowly transforming our churches into hotels for saints, away from the hospitals for sinners they were intended to be.  I’m not saying this to be critical – it’s just what’s happened in response to our world – and our understanding of God.  And for those the minute they heard the word ‘sinner’ felt like they were chewing tinfoil, or heard fingernails on a chalkboard, just know that I struggle even using this word because of the baggage that comes with it.  It’s been burdened with undue judgment and disdain over the years. Instead, in this context, by sinners I mean those who recognize their need for God: those desperate enough to seek God for help, those in need of healing. 

Back to the last fifty years, as a result of our prosperity and “relative” peace, we have convinced ourselves that only happy days are a blessing from God.  But it’s just not true.  While it’s easier to praise God when the sun is shining, what if you’re enduring a dark night of the soul, or a relentlessly cold winter of shut-in-ness watching the world go by?  Learning to praise God even when we’re not getting our own way, or in the midst of disappointment, is a spiritual discipline.  It’s what transformed the faith of the Israelites in their time of exile.  In these times, practicing the presence of God reminds us that in all things, God is, and always shall be.  This belief had the power to reshape the faith of the Israelites, as it does for us.   

This power is felt no better than in the writings of Jeremiah.  If Lamentations captured the hope-tinged-lament of the people, then Jeremiah takes it one step further to joy-laden-hope.  For in Jeremiah 29, there are two, if not more, important encouragements from God. 

“Build houses and make yourselves at home. “Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. “Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away. “Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. “Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.” (Jeremiah 29)

I was researching this sermon (and our Lent series coming up in a few weeks) when an American website tied verse 7 of today’s text to our national anthem, O Canada.  Make yourselves at home… and work for the country’s welfare, is not the first thing that I think of when singing our words of patriotic unity, but maybe it should be?  What if seeking God, is seeking the goodness of ourselves and others?[2]  For working for the well-being of all should be our intent, shouldn’t it?  But the welfare of the country is a deeply debatable topic.  Holding the hungry of our country hostage because you personally disagree with the politics swirling around us, is wrong.  Others may argue it’s as wrong as forced vaccinations, for it strikes at the freedom we sing about in that same song.

Welcome to why we are still struggling two years into this pandemic. 

We can’t agree on the well-being of all.  We can’t pray for political parties in our own country with whom we happen to disagree.  We’re letting ourselves be pulled apart by individualism and narcissism and while the vocal minority is long and loud, it inspires others to join their convoy, Pied-pipering us fearful lemmings towards our own decline. 

Jeremiah saw the same thing happening in Babylon.  People were despairing because of all they lost.  They resisted Babylon.  They despaired more.  When they had thought they lost everything, they lost more.  Their faith broke under the strain of it all.  They had to be deliberate in their rediscovery of God.  They prayed, surely God is in the place not believing the words, but hoping they might notice nonetheless.  Assuming God was in Babylon, led the Israelites “home” to God’s love, regardless of where they were.  In exile with no way home – they were charged to make home where they were, so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away. 

I don’t know about you but that comment of wasting away hits a little too close to home.  I’m not even sure what day it is most days, though I’m deeply aware of how long we’ve been in pandemic, deeply aware of how much I’ve missed, and how uncertain the future might be.  It’s tradition in the United Church that after 5 years of ministry that clergy (and congregation) take a break from one another – a sabbatical – so that everyone comes back renewed for the next five years.  For me, that anniversary of five years was last year, and I was hoping that this year might be the time of sabbatical, but honestly, I don’t know.  I don’t know what next week’s Ontario reopening might bring, nor when the church might reopen, let alone six months from now. 

Getting to thriving is tough work.  It means putting in gardens and planting seeds that take time to grow.  Embracing and serving this present moment with hope.  As Len Sweet, author and theologian, said, “God has chosen you to serve this present moment.  (Not the you, you wished you were).  Not the world we wished we had.  Not the world we feel more comfortable in, but the world we got…” with all its divisions, and problems and injustices and uncertainty.  The Israelites at the time of exile certainly didn’t want to be that generation responsible for either the fruition or failure of the entire faith.  Nor do we.  But thriving is always possible. 

Getting us to thriving is Jeremiah’s joy-laden-hope.  You may have heard before the wisdom to bloom where you’re planted.  That’s at the root of the prophet’s words to the Israelites to not just “make the best of a bad situation” or turn “lemons into lemonade.” Instead, this is a call to truly flourish.    So – how do we do it?  How do we bloom and grow?[3]  Jeremiah said it’s as easy as enjoying our lives – seeking to flourish in our lives – and making our homes all while working for the welfare and well-being of others. 

Jeremiah began by encouraging the people to embrace the current moment – rather than waste their energy fighting it, for in acceptance, you come to learn that every step in life prepares you for the next one.[4]  Every moment, no matter how challenging or difficult, is an opportunity for you to learn about healthy coping and beliefs to help you the next time that stuff gets rough.  Acceptance challenges us as well to learn to stop complaining.  There’s a place for it – for sure – but even the book of Lamentations came to an end.  If you don’t learn to stop, you’ll find yourself in a death spiral.[5] I learned recently of ants that form an ant mill when they lose the pheromone track of those in front of them, eventually following one another until they collapse from exhaustion.  When we lose our lead, we die.  When we lose our focus, and our purpose, we do the same.  If we don’t stop complaining, we will waste away.  That held, and expressed, negativity eats away at our hope. As Maya Angelou wrote,

“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it.
If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”[6]

But that’s not blooming,[7] not just yet.  From acceptance we move into the real display of our beauty.  Like the trees just waiting for the warmth of the sun, we bask in the glory of God in order that we might be a blessing, for when we grow in faith and love, others will grow around us.  Whether it’s through cards written, or phone calls made, or prayers uttered, love cannot help but be shared.  We are blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12) as countless studies have been done to link mental health and happiness directly to how we seek to better the lives of others.  Jeremiah knew then what we practice now – if things go well for others, things will go well for you.  For this current moment and all its problems hasn’t robbed us of potential.  This was, and still is, our moment to come together for the well-being of all people.  Nothing that has happened over these last two years has affected that.  The opportunity is still there. 

I encourage you, like people before me, like Jeremiah generations ago, to embrace this moment as our own.  We are called to bloom where we’ve been planted, even if we’re just breaking through the concrete.  We are called to flourish in spite of our hardship, if only to ensure that others may do the same. 

We are encouraged to seek God, and seek the goodness of ourselves and others, that together God’s will may be done.  Amen

[1] https://vst.edu/event/practicing-gods-presence/

[2] https://www.psypost.org/2022/01/trying-to-make-other-people-happy-makes-us-happier-than-trying-to-make-ourselves-happy-62387

[3] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-to-bloom-where-you-ar_b_5600780

[4] Ibid – I’m actually going to paraphrase most of this article, quotes and all as I find it’s wonderfully simple in terms of how to bloom

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ant_mill

[6] Angelou, Maya, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

[7] https://medium.com/the-ascent/5-ways-to-bloom-where-youre-planted-d7d01b0b4d4f


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