October 13, 2019 Sermon
“Grow Where You are Planted”
Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7,
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.
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.
New Testament Scripture: Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
Sermon: “Grow Where You are Planted” Rev. David Hawkins
It is the season when we begin to harvest that which we’ve planted. There’s a crisp feeling in the air, and it even got down to freezing the last couple of nights. Gardens full of squash and okra, corn in the fields, the cotton is starting to think about coming out. It’s a great time of year, the time when all the hard work of our farmers is on display, and the end of the year is on the horizon. In many ways, it’s my favorite time of year, especially after a summer as brutal as this one was.
It’s a good time of year to consider the ways that God has been good to us, and to think about our response. Church budgets are in the air, and stewardship-type words are blowing around in the wind.
I don’t know, but all this talk about planting and harvest and such made me notice the Old Testament scripture just a little more than normal, and got me thinking about what Jeremiah might have been telling his people, and what we might learn from it.
Jeremiah is one of the major prophets of the Bible, along with other greats like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, and his style of prophecy is so distinctive that his name has been appropriated to describe a complaint that is long, angry, and tragic. A Jeremiad is one of those rants that seem to go on forever, and are deeply personal. And that’s kind of how the book of Jeremiah reads. And Lamentations is even worse.
But there is good reason for that.
The prophecies of Jeremiah span the time from before the fall of the Southern Kingdom, including the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, all the way to the Babylonian captivity. And through it all, Jeremiah is warning about what is going to happen, watching it while it happens, and then lamenting what has happened. He could have said, “See, I told you so,” but he doesn’t. He weeps. And wails. And rails, and rants, and shakes his fist at God. He holds nothing back, and it’s obvious why Jeremiah is associated with some of the most emotional scriptures in the Bible.
But today’s scripture goes against the norm. Today, we hear a comforting word, a permission-giving word. An encouraging word, a word that tells his people that things are going to be ok. And for Jeremiah, this is a big deal.
And the people need to hear this word. Their home country has been overrun, their beloved temple, the center of their lives, the seat of their God, lies in ruins, and they have been taken captive into exile. There emotional state is best captured by the words of Psalm 137,
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
The people were so devastated, they could no longer even sing. They hung their instruments in the trees. Their hearts wore broken in ways I can hardly imagine, and this great singing nation sat mute on the banks of the river.
This is where Jeremiah finds his people. They are captive in a foreign land, with no home, no temple, no song, no hope.
As I said, it would have been easy for Jeremiah to just say, “I told you so,” clap the dust off his hands and walk away. It may have even tempting for him to do so. I know I would have been tempted to let them have it. I would have gleefully pointed out how many times I told them this exact thing was going to happen if they didn’t change their ways.
But Jeremiah, the Lamenter, is more gracious than I am, and he speaks words of comfort. “Live,” he says. “Eat, drink, get married. Build houses, send your kids to school. Find useful work, be a part of the community. Grow where God has planted you.”
And this is startling advice. It could have gone another way. He could have argued to become isolated, withdrawn. He could have argued for a bunker mentality, to live behind walls, gates, locked doors. He could have told his people to be afraid, to be suspicious, to look at the world through distrustful eyes.
But he doesn’t.
And for me, this is one of the most liberating and permission giving scriptures in the whole Bible. In the midst of captivity, of conquest, of being strangers in a strange land, he says, “Reach out. Live life. Be a part of the world in which you find yourself.”
And this is bold advice.
This is bold advice for a beaten people, for a terrorized people, for a people who had seen everything they held dear ripped from their arms, and marched halfway across the world, to a foreign land, a foreign language, a foreign culture.
I’m not sure how I would have heard his words. It’s easy, when under attack, to withdraw, to protect ourselves. It’s natural, some would even say, smart. It’s instinctual, when in the midst of loss, to wall ourselves in, to shut ourselves down and lock the doors.
But Jeremiah says, “no”. He says to expose yourselves to the world, be vulnerable, be open, be out there.
And whether or not we identify with the captive nation of Judah, we need to hear this advice so much. Because we, as Christians, tend to do this very thing, without even knowing it. We separate ourselves from the world, lock our doors, and don’t want to have anything to do with it.
And this is not a new thing. For centuries, even from the very beginning of the Christian faith, there has been a debate about if, or how much we should be involved in the world.
Some have argued for a complete withdrawal, that the kingdom of this world, and the kingdom of God are so different that we are to have nothing to do with the world, and should cloister ourselves in our private communities, and let the world work its problems out on its own.
This is the sort of thinking that led to monasteries and celibacy, to the sort of closed off communities that protect themselves and what they have behind walls of doctrine, cultural codes of behavior, and choices about what we buy, where our kids go to school, how we vote, who we let into our country, who we bomb, etc.
And there are scriptures in the Bible that lead us in that direction. The gospel of John is famous for this sort of fortress mentality. And this makes sense, when you remember that this gospel was likely written during some of the most vicious persecutions of Christians by the Roman Empire. When it was being written, it must have seemed that the world was against the Christians.
But reality is, we do not live in that world anymore. We are not being persecuted on a regular basis. We are not being fed to the lions, we are not being crucified upside down. There are sometimes difficulties in living a Christian life, but in the main, we are not actively being hunted down and marked for death.
I remember that when I first came to Plainview, I asked around if there was a pastors’ group somewhere in town, where we could get together and talk, maybe do some bible study, maybe do some mutual support. This was before the current Ministerial Alliance was formed here in Plainview, and there was a group of 4 or 5 pastors that met for coffee.
I went a few times, and I was struck by the way these kind and gentle men (they were all men) felt besieged by the world. Every meeting was spent talking about the vicissitudes of being a Christian in today’s culture. And I had been in town long enough to know that nearly every leadership position in this town was occupied by members of their churches. I simply couldn’t square their fear of persecution with the reality of the world they lived in. They, and their churches, were literally in charge of pretty much anything that happened in Plainview. How is this persecution?
The answer is, it’s not. It’s not persecution. It’s a persecution complex, but it’s not persecution. And I think this sort of persecution complex affects a lot Christians in this part of the world.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are parts of the world where Christians are in terrible danger. They are really persecuted, they really are killed for their faith. This is a real thing.
But it isn’t a real thing in our country. It just isn’t.
We are privileged in this country, and we don’t recognize it. We adopt the bunker mentality of first century Christians on the run for their lives, and we live as though we too are in danger of being smothered in hot tar, or tortured, or any number of the horrible sorts of things that happened back then.
And this is why I think Jeremiah’s advice strikes such a chord with me. He calls us out of our catacombs. He invites us to take part in this world, even to enjoy living in this world. He reminds us that God is with us, even in this strange and unfamiliar place. He gives us permission to laugh, to eat, to drink, to love, to even sing.
Jeremiah is giving us permission to live, not as fugitives, not as paranoid hermits, reclusive and protected by our self-erected walls of fear and distrust, but as settled, confident members of the human community.
Of course, this is dangerous. It is dangerous for us, and it was dangerous for Jeremiah’s readers. It is dangerous to be vulnerable, to be trusting, to commit to being a part of the world around us. The world is unpredictable, sometimes treacherous.
But here’s the thing. Jeremiah says do it anyway.
I don’t normally quote the work of other authors when I preach, I feel like its trying to appropriate their authority. But I would like to close the sermon today with a series of paradoxical commandments by writer and educator Dr. Kent Keith, which does as good a job as any of paraphrasing what I hear Jeremiah trying to say.
1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
10. Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.
Glory be to God. Amen