Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Jeremiah 29:1a, 4-7

Think for a moment, if you will, about the places where your feet seem to land these days:  your home and work; meetings and board rooms; subways, buses or walking the streets;  weddings and perhaps funerals; and all those spaces in between.

We show up here in the church and for our children at school and are always on the go.  It sometimes seems easier for our bodies to land, but parts of us are somewhere else thinking about the next thing or the last thing; what didn’t get done and what needs to happen next.  It’s easy to not pay attention and be fully present to the moment.

The Word of God through the prophet Jeremiah speaks to us this morning.  The chosen people had been exiled in a foreign land.  They were surrounded by temples and pagan gods; immigrants held against their will in Babylon.  They had been forced to give up their way of being, their customs and traditions, and they were trying to hang on to some semblance of the way things used to be.   They were a people in despair longing for identity and a future that seemed uncertain.

Do you understand their dilemma, even in some small way?  The entire 137th Psalm describes their plight and sorrow:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.  There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, Sing us one of the songs of Zion!

But (we said) how can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land.

If we forget you Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.  May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.[1]

I was thinking about it – all of those displaced peoples in our land and world now and throughout history who experienced such longing for their native lands, having to assimilate in an unknown whether by force or sheer necessity, looking for safety and a better way of life.

How can we sing amid such barrenness, change, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty?

This word this morning is also for those of us who face other kinds of Babylons in which we find ourselves among people, places, and spaces, attitudes and values, and ways of thinking and doing that are equally foreign to us.   It could be in any number of those places – at home, work, family, meetings, and board rooms, even here in the church.

This word is for those who face the uncertainties and consequences of unplanned and unintended change; for those unsure of whether to go or to stay or what to do; how to manage life’s sudden interruptions.

Instead of a word of imminent relief and rescue,  the prophet Jeremiah says this:

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.

Can you imagine this not being the last thing they wanted to hear?  They were expecting to return home back to Jerusalem soon or at least within a few short years and now the prophet is telling them to settle in.

Well, now, you have to have a measure of faith to hear this.  Because it’s not about being passive or accepting cruel things.  It’s not about saying it’s ok or staying too long at the rodeo.  But it is about knowing that the present moment, regardless of how it appears, is not the sum of all things.  And right here in this moment, I have purpose, and there is a better future not yet see or even imagined.   This has been tried and tested by thousands and thousands of people over many hundreds of years; people who didn’t have a thing but made do with what they had until…..

God said to go ahead, build houses, and live in them.  Plant a garden.  Marry and have children, lots of children—and we do know how babies are made, don’t we?  You don’t build houses, plant gardens, and have children if you think the world is coming to an end.  The world is not going to end and neither are you, even if you don’t live to see, your children, your  grandchildren, and on and on and on.[2]

If you must be in this place at this moment, be there.  Embrace it, create a new normal, be productive, plant good things, bear fruit and build.  Birth something and become wedded to it.  Pray for the welfare of where you are—pray for it, pray for it, pray for it—because your own good welfare is indelibly tied to the places you are right now.  Can you imagine?

And God is there.  And I want to encourage you to show up in those spaces as you are. Don’t change a thing. Bring your full self to that space. Though you may be tempted to bring another side, don’t do it.

Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t scheme or blame.  Don’t retaliate or cut corners.  Bring your best self – your beautiful wonderfully divinely created self.  Bring your gifts and talents; your integrity and character.  Bring your faith, your resilience and determination; your moral consciousness.  Bring your ability to be malleable and pliable.  Bring all the lessons your mother and father and grandma and grandpa taught you.  Bring the wisdom of your ancestors and all who have endured before.  Bring your hard work and determination – bring it all to that moment.  Because they will never fail you.

Whether somebody is looking or not.  Whether you get what you feel you deserve or not.    Bring it all into that space, right here and right now as if your entire future is depending on it.

And here is one more thing; something unexpected, unnatural, counterintuitive, almost too much to ask for.  Here is why it is necessary to pray not just for ourselves but for those who would cause us harm.  This is why we must pray for the welfare of the spaces and people where we find ourselves, even if we are discouraged and don’t want to, because here lies this amazing opportunity for all parties to be redeemed if they so choose.

All of us can find ourselves in the process if we are willing to engage.  Bringing who we are can make room for a path for them too and we are able to gift one another with grace beyond what any of us deserve, for the same God rules over us all and loves all.  This might be a hard truth in the moment, but it is still true.

And don’t ever stop singing my friends, don’t stop singing.  Music has a way that is powerful and transcendent.  It can bring us into solidarity with who wrote it and others who have sung it through time.  It can take us somewhere,  comfort the soul, and give peace.

When I was a child, my mother used to sing all the time.  She would just strike up something while washing clothes or the dishes, cooking, or doing some other thing.  Singing and humming were prayers that only she and God knew the depth of:

There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus —
No, not one! No, not one!
None else could heal all our soul’s diseases —
No, not one! No, not one!

Jesus knows all about our struggles,
He will guide till the day is done;
There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus —
No, not one! No, not one!

There’s not an hour that he is not near us —
No, not one! No, not one![3]

With a child’s mind, I just thought my mother was happy.  It was a beautiful tune; Mama’s favorite song.  But as a grown up person, I have come to understand that she was not necessarily singing because she was happy all the time; she was singing because the weight of the world was upon her shoulders, and the song was an affirmation to her own self that there was Someone who knew everything, who cared, who understood; Someone who would help somehow.

And here is the promise:

Did ever saint find this Friend forsake him?
No, not one! No, not one!
Or sinner find that He would not take him?
No, not one! No, not one!

[1] Psalm 137
[2] Paraphrase
[3] “There’s Not a Friend like the Lowly Jesus” by Johnson Oatman, Jr.