This is a transcript from the June 14, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
Dislocation and disorientation, did you hear the words in that? Psalm 137 is full of discouragement and disconnection. I was trying to find pictures that would somehow, in modern-day, match with those words that were uttered thousands of years ago. It wasn't hard because we are in a season, aren't we? That feels very dislocated. We feel dislocated and disoriented and discouraged. Some of us are feeling pretty dissed out. We would like it to go back to normal. I know I would.
Here's the question I think for us. Do you believe that this season that we are in, is an interruption, is an obstacle to our story, or is it an introduction into a new chapter? Because the way we approach that and the way we answer that question is going to change everything. The question is in this season that's so disorienting and so dislocating, is this just a detour or is this something longer?
I would love to tell you that I think this is just a detour. I'd love to say that soon it's all going to go back to normal, but I begin to look and I begin to wonder when I look at the facts around a pandemic. Then the re-emergence again, of the issue of racism, the unfinished business of our generation and of our country. An economy that's very shaky at best. A polarized society moving into an election year. I don't think it's going to get less polarized. Do you?
The issue of justice and law enforcement is coming to the fore again. Then there's this other question about faith. While we have been watching for decades now the role of faith, and at least the way we have practiced it become less and less relevant and compelling. Do we think that's going to come back anytime soon? Does our faith match this moment? Where do we find the resources? I would love to tell you that I think all this is going to change, and this is just a temporary blip, but I think this is a shift into a new age.
That's why I think I am drawn to our passage this morning in Jeremiah, Jeremiah 29. This psalm was written around the event of the Babylonian exile about 2,600 years ago. The two remaining tribes of Israel were defeated by the nation of Babylon and they were carted off. All the leaders and the educated people were carted off into this place. Psalm 137, "By the Waters of Babylon, I lay down my--" and I just wept. "How can I sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
This passage is written in the same time. It is for people who are dislocated and disoriented and are wondering, "Is this temporary or something longer?" Listen to these words that Jeremiah writes to these folks. It begins in verse 4. "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, don't decrease."
"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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, 'Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you and do not listen to the dreams that they dream for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name. I did not send them,'" says the Lord.
Do you catch what's going on? There's tension, there's wondering, "Are we here for a little while? We're hoping it's just a little while. When do we get to go back to normal?" What is Jeremiah telling them? I'm wondering if some of the lessons apply to us today being able to say, "You have the wrong hope."
If your hope is that somehow we're going to get to go back to normal. If we're going to get to go back to the way it used to be, that's the wrong hope. For a couple of reasons, one is normal may not be the goal. Normal might in fact be part of the problem. What used to be normal is maybe what helped get us where we are. More to that is there is a biblical tradition that you never get to go back. That what God is always doing is what is forward.
In this case, it is saying you need to be here, the present, be present to what's going on right now. Don't be thinking about what you'd rather be doing. Don't be thinking about what used to be, be here. Being present is the hardest thing to do in any time. Our mind is always wanting you to be anywhere but here. We're always thinking about what's next or next week. We're always thinking about the future problems. We're very rarely able to simply be here and pay attention.
Or we want to go back, we want to relitigate. We have sentiments or we're trying to rehash things.
Being here and being aware of what's here and paying attention to what's here is hard at any time. Particularly when we are at a place where we don't want to be. Part of the lesson of Jeremiah is you have the wrong hope if you're trying to be anywhere but here.
It's right here and if that's true, then maybe you have the wrong focus because if the point is just to get back, then it's a matter of hanging on. How do we just hang on? How do we hold on a little longer until the virus breaks? How do we hang on a little longer until things calm down?
The focus is still on holding on for the short term. What this passage is telling us is the focus is in the wrong place. It's not about hanging on until things get back to normal. It's living into a new era. What do you need to be doing right now for the future? Did you catch all those words? Listen, wherever you are, start planting gardens, produce, eat those things. Plan on that. Do the things now that are going to have longterm effect.
Go ahead get married, have children. Make sure your children have children. There's wonderful imperative, don't decrease, multiply, thrive where you are. Then these words. Seek the good or seek the welfare of the city that you are in. Pray for it. That would have been scandalous for those people because that's the last thing they wanted to do was pray for this place that was disorienting and dislocating. No, no, pray for it, pray for its good, its welfare because in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Some of you know Rabbi Joe Charnis. He has been with us and helped teach some classes and be in worship with us. He and his family are in Germany right now. They were over there and then the pandemic broke and he hasn't been able to get back and maybe in a month or two, but we started talking by phone. Last week he said, "What are you working on?" I told him the passage that I was working on. He got it out. He was reading it in Hebrew as I was looking at it in English.
This one particular verse started to get very excited. It was all these things about plant and give in marriage and increase. He says, "Do you realize that this is a very powerful, a couple of verses. There's a lot of verbs in there. Did you realize-" and he counted them, he goes, "-11 of the 12 are imperatives. They are commands. These aren't suggestions. This isn't about comfort. This is about God saying, 'Look, plant things, grow things, harvest things. Give in marriage, have children, multiply, don't decrease, thrive.'" It's imperative.
Then he said, "What's that word? What's the English translation." I said, "Well, welfare is how they say it." Some versions talk about praying for the good or the welfare." He goes, "That's an okay word, but it's so much stronger than that." I said, "What do you mean by that?" He said, "Well, the root word in each of this is shalom, peace, wholeness." The light went on for me. I was like, "Oh, of course."
This isn't about just praying for things to kind of go better, this is the biblical imperative of shalom, of wholeness, of wellness. We call it peace, but it's deep abiding peace. How profound is work for the wholeness of wherever you are because when you do that, then you get to become whole as well. That's what happens when our focus is in the right place, not on what isn't happening, but what could happen. Not on what we can't do, but what we can.
It's this underlying command to thrive. Thrive where you are. It's that old poster that says bloom where you're planted. In this case, almost literally, bloom where you are planted, not because it's where you want to be but because it's where you are. Pay attention to where you are and then you get to take the places that don't make sense. You get to take the broken places, the shattered things, and now they become the raw material for what God is yet to do.
Don't have the wrong hope. Don't invest in the wrong focus. Let God take the shattered and the broken because God is trying to do something new. The word that Jeremiah has for people 2,600 years ago and the word that perhaps it is for us is, I know where you are. I know exactly where you are. You may feel lost. You may feel like this is a strange land but you're not lost to me. It's not strange to me. I'm already there and I'm inviting you to change your focus. I'm inviting you to live into a different hope. I'm inviting you into this new chapter, pay attention to what's in front of you. Pay attention to what you've been given. Pay attention and trust for what God is about to do next.
That's really the gist of a wonderful prayer, a multimedia prayer that Joy Barklage has put together for us. I invite you to just take a couple of deep breaths and then let's let these words become our words.
When we start to adjust and get a different focus and a different hope it can change our prayers too. There are two types of prayers that come out in times like this, aren't there? There's the one prayer that asks God to somehow change our circumstances so that we aren't overwhelmed. Change our circumstances to match our capabilities. Change what's going on around us. Change the people so they behave. Change them.
Then there's the other prayer. The prayer that Jeremiah is encouraging here. It is the prayer that changes me and my strength to match the needs of the day. To match the circumstances and the demands that are around me. Two very different kinds of prayers. One is a prayer that just helps me to hang on to survive. The second is a prayer to help me thrive. It isn't that what we're being asked to do? Isn't that what is in our passage? This is not a prayer to just hang on so that you can get through, this is an invitation to thrive. Well, how do we do that?
I've got three things to wrap up just to unpack this and simply it is about living into what is new and not waiting to go back to what is old. I'm going to suggest that, one, what do we need to do to become someone new? Two, what do we need to do to learn something new? Then three, what's the new thing that we need to do? These are things that we can do to live into this new era.
Becoming someone new, ask this question, what people are needed for this time and space? What are the kind of people who can come and bless their environment? What kind of faith do we need to do? What work on our soul do we need so that we can live into the wholeness that God has for us, the shalom, and then begin to give it so that other people are blessed?
What's the work of our soul that we need to do so our faith becomes not only relevant but absolutely essential? Second, what do we need to learn? Because part of what we need to learn is, is how do we operate in this new environment and what do we need to learn and what do we need to unlearn? I'm going to suggest that one of the big subjects that we are being invited into right now has to do with race and racism around us.
Like many, I've had to relook at who I am and what I'm thinking of. I've had to come to realize in the last couple of years, again, and then certainly in the last several weeks, what is it I still need to learn? What do I need to unlearn? I've changed my pastor's book club that I was going to do. I'm working with our race and racism class. We're offering a book that they have done before called White Fragility.
That information is coming out and I invite you to read through it. It's going to be a challenging read. It's going to create some real conversations. It's going to invite us to learn some new things, unlearn some old things. What do we need to learn in order to thrive here to bring the wholeness of God to this time and space? Because as we do that, then we get to live into the wholeness that God has already begun in us. Which gets us to the last thing we're going to, what's the new person we need to become? What's the new thing we need to learn?
The last challenge for this summer is going to be, what's something new that we need to do? I have been impressed with team Zimbabwe, and for me, I'm going to find some ways to do some things there that I haven't been able to do in the past. I want to do that because wouldn't it be great if in this season while so many people feel like we're on hold and are just waiting for things to calm down or we're chafing at the restrictions around us, wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a group of people who said, "No, we're not going to hold and we're not just going to hunker down. We're going to actually move forward, and we're going to do something that blesses other people."
As we give of ourselves in ways that bless people halfway across the world, we look for God's shalom, wholeness, peace there, and then it becomes more and more real in us. Work for the shalom of your world. As you do, as it finds shalom, you will find shalom, Jeremiah says. It all begins with this question. Do we really believe that this is a slight interruption? A blip, or is this a shift?
Are we just waiting to get back to the way it used to be or are we willing to entertain the idea that the way it used to be was preparation for where we are right now and an invitation to what is yet to be? We didn't choose this time. We didn't choose this place that feels so disorienting, so dislocating, so discouraging. I do believe that we are exactly where we're supposed to be. I believe that we were chosen in Christ for this time and this place. Now the question will be, how will we live? How will we go out? Who will we become?
The invitation is to change our hope and our focus and our prayers in such a way that the faith that we have in God, not only becomes relevant to all those around us in new ways but becomes essential for us as we live into the new thing that God is yet to do. The thing that is possible because of what Christ is making possible. We do that as we go out in new ways, in new ways this week find ways to love God with everything you've got.
To find new ways to love your neighbor as yourself. To be the shalom of your community. Then as we go, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace. In believing, may you abound with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit now and forever, Amen. As you go out, as we go out this day, may the peace of Christ, may the shalom of Christ, may the wholeness of Christ be with you. May you pass that to one another. Peace.