Week 1: Jeremiah’s “Encouraging” Word
As I said at the beginning of worship, today we are starting a brief series called Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart. For some reason it felt relevant! I don’t know about you, but very few things in my life right now are going according to plan. My plan for this spring did not include isolation and social distancing. My plan did not include an empty sanctuary, countless online meetings, learning video editing software, or not being able to sit with you while you grieve. My plan for my children this year did not include distance learning, or a parking lot graduation ceremony, or so many cancelled dreams. Unraveled, indeed.
Fortunately, there are quite a few examples in the Bible of people whose plans came unraveled, and one of the largest is the period of time we call the exile. As many of you know, in the 6th century BCE, Jerusalem was defeated by the Babylonian Empire and the majority of the people were taken to Babylon under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. They were not slaves, like they were in Egypt, but they were captives. They were not free to leave.
The exile was the loss of everything they knew and valued. When they lost Jerusalem, they lost their place of worship, the center of their lives together, and the place where they believed God resided. They felt like they lost their identity. They were the people of the land—the Holy Land that they believed God had given them. Without Jerusalem, what were they? WHO were they?
There in Babylon, they weren’t sure what to do. They wanted to go back to Jerusalem. They wanted to go back to work. They wanted to go back to church. They wanted to go back to living in community the way they had always done. They wanted to return to life as they knew it. Sounds familiar, right? Even without being able to see you nod at me, I’m pretty sure you’re following the comparisons!
Enter the prophets. There were prophets who came along promising a quick end to their troubles. No need to get used to this, they said. Don’t even unpack your bags. God will rescue us. We’ll be back home in no time. Jeremiah called these people “false prophets.” Jeremiah said, “No, we’re going to be here a while,” which made him both unpopular and correct. But he had advice for the people, which brings us to our reading for today from Jeremiah 29:1-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. . . . It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear 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.
Jeremiah isn’t really pulling any punches. Every thing he says to do takes time. Plant gardens—you’ll still be around to eat what they produce. Build houses—you’ll need somewhere to live. Get married and have children because if you wait until you’re back home, you as a people will die out. This doesn’t really sound like good news, does it? Not if you’re looking for the return plan. And we, like the Israelites, are desperately looking for the plan to return us to normalcy.
A friend of mine called such plans at this point in time “good” conspiracy theories. He says we want to believe in them because we want a quick fix “to what are seemingly impossible and intractable tangles of difficulties.” He goes on to say that our shallow TV stories all promise immediate relief and a return to normal in an hour, whether it’s DNA tests that come back after the commercial break or detective stories where whoever they arrest at the 43-minute mark is the real culprit and the problem is solved. But our deep stories are different. “Our deep stories tell us what we don’t want to hear: the world was broken before this problem showed up, and the way out of Egypt is through the wilderness.” Although he is referring to a different hard time in the story of the Israelites, the wilderness rather than the exile, he points out something important about our time as well: we will be changed by the journey.
I want to be with you. I miss y’all so much. The psalmists’ words now make so much sense to me: psalms about how I long to be in the house of the Lord, how I yearn for the courts of God. As much as I want to jump right back into worship as we know it, it is not yet safe for us to worship together. There are too many variables, too many unknowns, and too many restrictions on what we could do if we did gather. So for now we will be continuing with online worship. But here are some things I know:
- I know that we can be “the church” without a building.
- I know that we can minister to others without coming to a sanctuary.
- I know that we can be community even when we can’t hug.
- I know that we will get through this, together.
Now, some of you are going stir-crazy and some of you are bored and some of you are overworked and stressed, and some of you are missing friends and family. And I know some of you are desperately lonely. So I will soon be creating some opportunities for small groups of us to gather with good safety precautions so that we can try to ease a little of that loneliness ache. It won’t be in worship, but it will be in community. So watch your Weekly Word for news of how these gatherings will happen.
In our story about the Israelites, the people didn’t know who they were, if they weren’t in Jerusalem. They defined themselves as the people of the land, the holy land. But after their exile, their identity shifted. They became the people of the book. The exile prompted them to write down their stories and edit those that already existed so that the stories wouldn’t be lost—stories that not only guided them, but have guided many millions of us for thousands of years.
Our church may be the church on Meetinghouse Hill, but we have never been limited BY our location or TO it. We are not the people of the land. We are the people of the love. So how will we become more of who we are, more of what we are called to be, during this time?
When our isolation first began, people started posting on Facebook a quote that went something like this: “If you don’t come out of this lockdown with a new skill, more knowledge, and better health and fitness, you never lacked time. You lacked discipline.” Sure, if you’re not over-anxious or underpaid, feel free to use this time productively. But not all of us can do that. Some of us don’t have the financial or emotional resources to turn a pandemic into a project. For some of us, getting ourselves off the couch and out into the sunshine is a major win for the day. And that’s just fine. We are in a traumatic situation, and comparing our coping to others is not helpful.
Listen again to Jeremiah’s advice. At first it sounded harsh, but let’s reconsider. Everything he advises is about life and love. Plant gardens. Grow things. Grow people. Grow love. Now, I’m not suggesting you take Jeremiah’s advice into account regarding your own family planning! But he is saying that here in this place you don’t want to be, here in the middle of this unraveled plan, here in this difficult situation, invest in life. Invest in what will give life, what will bring life. Invest in love. And be willing to be changed by the journey.
During this time of unraveled plans, I will close with a simple praise chorus I learned many years ago:
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, Lord. Bind us together with love.