Jeremiah, that Old Testament prophet, still speaks to today. Nancy Taylor, of Old South Church, showed us how he can help us see how to live in a world turned upside down. Today, we’re going to take it a little further.
Jeremiah wrote for a people whose world had been turned upside down. They’d lost a war, and King Nebuchadnezzar ruled that the leaders – nobles, lords, the wealthy, the religious leaders, scribes – all had to be exiled to Babylon, so that they would not revolt. The exiles did not know when or if they would ever be able to return to their lives in Jerusalem. Babylon wasn’t a bad place to live, but it wasn’t home. So, they spent much of their time trying to make this new place as much like the old place as they could, trying to hold onto “the way it had always been”, living, as it were, in suspended animation until they could get back to real life.
Into that setting came the word from Jeremiah: “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 29:5-7) Eventually, he says, you will come home, but not for a long time, so settle in and live where you are. That sure sounds like the world we’re in right now – turned upside down by COVID, turned upside down by recognition of racial divides, turned upside down by organizations busy building dividing walls of hostility, turning us on each other.
Whenever I think about what’s going on these days, I flash back to fourth grade and the stories about those who went west in wagon trains across the prairies. You probably read the same stories…. brave pioneers, wonderful Conestoga wagons loaded to the gills with the stuff of their old lives? Do you also remember how as the wagon trains made their way across Nebraska, the trails got more and more difficult? Muddy? Rocky? Deep ruts? And the pioneers had to choose – which was more important – getting there? or keeping their stuff? Because they couldn’t have both. They could go back to home with their stuff and give up their dreams or they could toss the heavy stuff that was weighing them down, toss it off the wagons, toss it to the side of the trail. As the pioneers traversed the Great Plains they cast off more and more of their former lives in order to move ahead into an unknown future.
We’re traveling a new trail these days, a trail to a new way of being a country, and we’re in the middle of the part where we have to decide. Will we hold onto all that’s familiar, even if it weighs us down so much we can’t move beyond yesterday’s prejudices and assumptions? Or will we toss that old stuff over the side, and with lightened hearts and renewed hope, will we move into a different way of being – a way where everyone has a safe place at the table? It’s hard; there’s no doubt about that. If you’ve ever moved, you know how hard it is to give up stuff you’ll not need again. But if you drag the old stuff, the stuff that doesn’t fit, doesn’t work, won’t be needed… well you won’t have space for the new stuff that fits your new life.
In these tough days, we are dumping a lot of stuff that has held us back, and letting go of it all is hard. Our favorite joke is no longer funny. The trust we’ve had in our law enforcement has been betrayed by a few bad apples, and in some parts of our country, the bad apples are winning. We have to toss aside the belief that “someone else” will guard our guardians, and take up the responsibility of supporting our good police.
We are traveling into a new land, not just because of the COVID pandemic, but because of things we have seen, things we have learned. We can’t just close our eyes, click our heels, and be taken back to last year’s reality. We are here, now, and have to live today. In this reality, Jeremiah says to us, build homes, plant gardens with seeds of faith, and hope, and love; work hard and reap a harvest for a new reality. In this new world, we are more open to hearing the stories of hardship, the realities of wrong-doing, and responding with God’s everlasting love.
May it be so!