“Bloom Where You’re Planted”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
26 July, 2020
Week 7 of 12 in “Unraveled” Summer Sermon Series
Jeremiah 29:1-7

Introduction to the Theme:
As you know, during our summer sermon series, we’ve been exploring the theme of “Unraveling.”  Each week, we’ve looked at a different sort of human experience that has the capacity to undo us, to make us fray at the edges if it doesn’t completely make us come undone.

We’ve looked at our inclination to practice denial when we’re confronted with difficult truths about ourselves.  We acknowledged a tendency to suspect our salvation is up to us, especially when it feels like we’re drowning in the churn of life’s storms—we forget that Jesus is in the water with us, walking toward us with outstretched arms saying, “Here I am.”  We’ve reflected on some of the hurtful social practices and harmful systems we’ve participated in often without being aware, and heard the invitation to divine reconciliation by becoming better listeners and honoring the experience of the suffering.  We noticed how flipping the script by inviting into community those whom society deems “undesirable”, can be positively transformational.  We’ve been challenged to think about our personal notions of scarcity in a world of abundance, about our relative positions of power and our call to sacrifice in a world that teaches us to hoard.  And last week, we were invited to consider the foundations of our identity, how we’ve constructed our notion of our self-identity—and how, in all these ways and realities, the possibility exists that we might need some unraveling and refashioning in order to reflect God’s intentions for all of life and our true identity in and through Christ.

This morning, we’re going to think about how life in exile is a metaphor for the way we’re called to live as people of faith.  Much of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, depicts life for a people, called Israel, in exile.  Whether it was as newly-liberated slaves sojourning through the wilderness in anticipation of claiming a Promised Land, or as we’ll hear in today’s Scripture reading, as freshly-conquered people unwillingly dispersed under duress by the Babylonians, Israel’s experience of comfortable or, at least, predictable life unraveling can serve as a metaphor for our own life in faith.

Time and again, Israel finds itself in situations presenting them with opportunities to trust and rely upon God’s faithful provision, while recognizing and sharing whatever abundance each one /had been uniquely blessed to possess.  Time and time again, the people are challenged to reflect on their identity, their relationships with God and the rest of creation.  And, time after time after time, there is the invitation to be transformed into God’s vision for them—a people who welcome the stranger, even practice concern and care for the enemy, a people who discover how with God’s help they can bloom where they’re planted.

I’m going to read the artist’s statement at the very beginning of my sermon instead of as the Introduction to the Theme, but I’m going to share the artist’s image with you as Tom reads the lesson this morning.
And I’m going to invite you to join me in a Prayer for Illumination now:
Creator-Redeemer-Inspirer of us all, help us to listen for your fresh word in the ancient words of the prophet Jeremiah, and in the story of this artwork.  And may my own words and the thoughts of each one gathered here resonate with your eternal word to us in Christ Jesus.  Amen.  [Share screen.]

{Read Jeremiah 29:1-7}

[SERMON]:

Any of you who have ever moved to a new place, an unfamiliar terrain, someplace far away from family or friends, and distant from habitual routines or established customs, you may know the complicated experience of exile.  Especially if your move was under duress, against your will, and the last thing you wanted to do—you will relate to what the Jewish exiles were feeling as they were forcibly scattered from their homeland in today’s Israel and Palestine, and shipped across the landscape of Jordan and the Arabian desert, further east to Babylonia, in modern-day Iraq.

As Americans, more of us have moved to new places voluntarily, even if it’s been to completely unfamiliar cultures.  But whether we’ve chosen to make the move or not, a dramatic transition has been involved.  Usually, our resettlement has required a release of control in many ways.  A need to accept the feeling that we are constantly at loose ends as we learn new ways of being.

There’s a sense in which, as people of God—as citizens of the kingdom of heaven recognizing that our life in this world is a temporary status—we are called to embrace our condition as exiles: as those who don’t fully belong, but who can nonetheless make a difference and bless the space and the people around us for as long as we’re here.  Certainly, that’s what Jeremiah was communicating in his letter, sent from Jerusalem (where the exiles desperately longed to be again) to the people in Babylon (where Jeremiah was encouraging them to settle in).

Remember, the people of Israel had been humiliated in battle by the Babylonians, and in order to ensure that they would not regroup and mount a resurgence, King Nebuchadnezzar had instructed that their communities should be undermined, all potential attempts at overthrowal thwarted, by scattering them across Babylonia.  It would have had the effect of further disgracing, demeaning, and disempowering a people who had been confident and proud of their accomplishments; Israel had believed God was on their side even if they didn’t always act according to God’s intentions for them.

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel,” Jeremiah begins, “to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon…” (Jer. 29:4, emphasis mine.)  In other words, the LORD is saying, ‘I know who you are, and I know where you are—because I sent you there.  I’ve been involved in this process, and it’s not without a purpose, even if you can’t see it now.’

Jeremiah continues speaking the LORD’s message to the people: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters… multiply there, and do not decrease.”[1]  Bloom where you’re planted; don’t give up and wither up simply because the world seems to have had its way with you.  I remain Sovereign, and I remain with you.

But the LORD doesn’t only say, “Be fruitful and multiply there” to the exiles.  As Jeremiah continues his letter he reports that God also says, “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.”[2]  In other words, love your enemies.  This is hard work—it is not an easy instruction to take on board, and it is completely contrary to what the dominant cultures of the world teach.  But it’s at the heart of a Christ-guided life.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to the audience who was yearning to understand how to live their own lives after his example, “You know that you have been taught, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek.  If someone sues you for your shirt, give up your coat as well.  If a soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles.  When people ask you for something, give it to them. When they want to borrow money, lend it to them.  You have heard people say, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.’  But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.  Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. …  If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends.  If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that?”[3]

There’s a sense in which abiding by these Biblical instructions represents an exilic lifestyle—a manner of living that is completely foreign to our familiar or habitual ways of being.  A way that is at odds with the habits and values of so many others around us.  And a way of being that most of us don’t naturally or eagerly gravitate toward.  And that’s part of the point: we need God’s help, the power of grace within us to completely transform our natural ways of being.

The Rev’d. Dr. Mark Labberton is the President of Fuller Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), who served in pastoral roles for over 30 years.  He’s written several books including The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, and he’s a popular speaker who likes to reflect on what it means to “act biblically in challenging, often divisive cultural times.”  He explores themes such as civility, suffering, race, gender equality, storytelling, and others, with various guests on his podcast called Conversing.  This morning, I’m going to share part of a conversation Rev. Labberton had with Travis Reed, who’s interviewed hundreds of theologians and people of faith for a resource website we’ve drawn from before, called The Work of the People.  In this four-minute clip, Labberton shares some powerful reflections on the subject of exilic living—of living as one who is in exile from our true homeland, from the ways of being we truly yearn to inhabit when we are embracing our deepest identity in Christ.

https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/exilic-living

There are ways in which our entire world is living in a sort of exile at the moment, as we’re all coming to grips with /new realities imposed upon us by COVID-19.  The social unrest and rampant incivility we’re experiencing as our country grapples with the issue of systemic racial injustice is also disorienting and confusing, especially when we identify too closely with the systems, structures, and values being most profoundly challenged and threatened at the moment.

Jesus said to the powers-that-be, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  As disciples of Jesus, this world is not our home.  And yet, God instructed the exiles through Jeremiah, “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.”  In the midst of difficult times, we are called to look out for those around us, to love our neighbor, even if they are our enemy.  It’s not easy work, as Jesus himself knew all too well.

But if we invite, allow, and trust the love of God at work in us; and if we can observe the places where we’ve grown; if we learn to tolerate the unraveling that happens when our lives are in transition; and can see the friends we’ve left behind and untraveled paths ahead as the roots God will use to stabilize us in an unfolding future; if we can see that “these threads can create grounding that nourishes and transforms us into something new”[4], then we will be comprehending what Jesus did: that God is with us, accompanying us, abiding with us.  Urging and enabling us to bloom in love wherever we’ve been planted.  Amen.

[1] Jer. 29:5-6

[2] Jer. 29:7, emphasis mine.

[3] Matthew 25:38-47 (CEV)

[4] Lauren Wright-Pittman, Artist Statement: “New Roots”; for “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart” preaching series; A Sanctified Art, sanctifiedart.org.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC