Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 10, 2010

2010.10.10 “New Normal” – Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7

Central United Methodist Church

“New Normal”

Pastor David L. Haley

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7

October 10th, 2010

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.”

– Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7, New Revised Standard Version

     Is it over yet? Is everyone tired of waiting for investments to bounce back, jobs to return, wars to end, and the serious problems facing us, to get solved?

      When we began this first decade of the millennium we didn’t know what we were in for. We didn’t know that two dramatic events – the terrorist attack of 2001 and the Wall Street collapse of 2008 – would evolve a “new normal” for our lives.

      For example, as a consequence of these two events, we passed two milestones this week:

      On October 7th, we began our 10th year of war in Afghanistan, now the longest war in America’s history.

      I remember well the day it began: I was conducting a wedding at Navy Pier. About an hour before the wedding, the news announced that we had begun bombing targets in Afghanistan.  With that, concerned over possible retaliation, the Chicago Police closed the Navy Pier parking garage, with the results that wedding guests now had to park blocks away, and walk to the wedding, which therefore got started a little late.

      We began that war, followed by the War in Iraq, and are now focused back on Afghanistan. While most of America has only heard about it on the news, or suffered the extra security precautions when we fly, the burden of both wars has been borne by the less than 1% of the population who are in or who have family members in the military. Families like the Miller family, formerly of Wheaton, whose son Rob was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor this week for his actions protecting his comrades, at the cost of his own life, in a snowy Afghan valley in 2008.

      Journalist Dexter Filkins of the New York Times has called it “the forever war.” General David Petraeus has said: “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”  I know a Marine Lt. Col. who says he looks at his young children and wonders where – when they grow up – they will be called to fight.

      The second major event of the decade was the Economic Collapse of 2008. The milestone connected with this that we passed this week is not a happy one either: new numbers from the labor department show that last month’s national unemployment rate held at 9.6%, the 14th straight month it has been above 9.5%.  Unemployment hasn’t been this high, for this long, since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  If you’re one of those who lost your job, or are looking for a job, you know how bad it is.

      As we know, we could go on. What’s happened to investments, pensions, the impact upon governments and education and budgets and services, not to mention housing prices, has led to a new normal for us.

      Next Sunday, as we begin a five-week series: Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity I want to go into more detail about how the economic crisis happened. Today, however, we acknowledge that due to these two events, we live under a “new normal” of forever war and economic instability, in exile from the life we knew.  Will it ever return?  And in this new normal, just how are we to live?

      Of course, apart from global changes, we find from time to time that we have to adjust to a new normal anyway. The birth of children, or children leaving home (do they still do that?)  Post-marriage, or post-divorce.  An injury or a disease.  The death of a spouse.  At such times, we may also feel we are in exile from the life we knew or the life we desire. What do we do?  How do we live?

      One answer to this question may be found in the prophet Jeremiah’s advice to Jewish exiles living in Babylonian captivity long ago.  In essence, “Bloom where you are planted.”

Jeremiah’s troubled life spanned one of the most troublesome periods in Hebrew history, the decades leading up to the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, the king, the priests, all the leaders and many of the people were taken away to exile in Babylon.

What happens when everything you believe in and live by is smashed to bits? It was the end of the world for them, at least for life as they knew it. In exile against their will in Babylon, far from their homeland, they felt as though they had lost their identity, their purpose, even their God — who had chosen and established them in their homeland so long ago. 

Despite our current economic hardships – most of us might not understand the dislocation they suffered. Some will: African Americans descended from abducted Africans, or Native Americans living on reservations far from ancestral lands.  Even those of you born in another country – though now American – do you still dream of the country of your birth? 

      The questions the exiles faced were disturbing, chief among them, “Why did this happen?” Some who remained in Israel added insult to injury by arguing that the exiles were feeling God’s anger because they were more evil than those who were spared.

      Unfortunately, we still have such types today, like the Rev. Fred Phelps and his congregation of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, who show up at soldier’s funerals around the country to claim their deaths are God’s retribution for America’s sins, which they identify as feminism and gay rights. (Their right to do so, and the families’ right NOT to endure it, went before the Supreme Court this week.) In their darkest moments, perhaps the Jewish community in exile wondered if it was true.  Had God cast them off?

In the meantime, lacking theological clarity, what should they do? Should they resist and seek revenge, giving action to the shocking words we read at the end of Psalm 137 last Sunday?

      “O Babylon, destroyer,     

      they are happy who repay you the ills you brought on us.

      They shall seize and shall dash your children on the rock!

                                     (Psalm 137: 8 – 9, The Grail Translation)

      In fact, some of them did try to revolt, only to be crushed by King Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 29: 21 – 23). 

      The text raises difficult questions, not easily answered.  When should we resist tyranny and injustice, and how? The Jews of Nazi Germany were forced to confront that question, as were many Christians. The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to name two examples, decided that resistance was the right thing to do. 

Meanwhile, prophets other than Jeremiah were also supplying answers. What they were saying is that Babylon is about to collapse and that the whole nightmare will be over in two years.  If that’s the case, the exiles hardly need to unpack. Rather, just count the days and wait for deliverance.

      In contradiction, Jeremiah offered his advice, which he believed was from God. Their captivity was from God, and as, such, should not be resisted.  It would not end soon, and any who promised so – no matter how deep their denial or how rosy their optimism (like those who promise quick ends to wars or a quick return to prosperity today) – were false prophets, deluding the people. 

      Yet however much they might feel God to be angry with them, God is not through with them yet.  And until the day comes when they could go home, they should make the most of their time there. And so Jeremiah tells them to build houses, plant gardens, have children, continue with life, and work for the betterment of the city. Perhaps most surprising of all, they should so identify with their new country that they look upon themselves as its citizens, and pray for it:

      “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: 7)

      God knows, there are days when every one of us is ready to give up on politics completely, to turn our backs not only on city and society but government at every level. But then, in better mind we remember what Jeremiah told those exiles, that our good is inseparably bound up in the good of all, including, yes, even our enemies.  How did Jesus put it?

      “You’re familiar with the old written law, “Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.’  I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. God gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.” (Matthew 5: 43 – 45)

In Israel’s case, living under this new normal – seeking the welfare of and praying for their oppressors – necessitated a shift in their theology. No longer could they understand God only as a tribal God – their” God – but as the universal God, who not only rules over all the earth but seeks the good of all earth’s people. Surely, such a God will be with you as much in Babylon as in Jerusalem, in Baghdad as well as Boston.

After a decade of patriotic fervor blessed by religion, we, too, need to remember that we serve a universal God, not limited only to our nation and people, but to every nation and every people.  God’s word to us is still to pray not only for our city and our country, but also for our enemies and all those who oppress us, for in the good of all do we find our good as well.

      Perhaps the most amazing thing: the Jewish people survived.  Whereas the Northern Kingdom of Israel, carried off by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., disappeared from history, the people of the Southern Kingdom survived their exile in Babylon and eventually returned home, some 70 years later. Why?  We may say it was ultimately the hand of God, but instrumentally we must credit the prophet Jeremiah and his powerful words of inspiration and hope, “words by which the people could come to terms with the tragedy of their nation and rise above it.” (James Newsome, Texts for Preaching Year C). 

        Jeremiah’s words fit the situation of a people living in an ancient empire, and they fit our situation today, mired in different kinds of empires, such as fear and militarism, materialism and consumerism.
 Jeremiah’s words still offer a course of action to anyone who feels in exile, trapped in an undesirable situation. As commentator Audrey West put it, “Things may not be great right now, but the news doesn’t have to be good in order for us to live out the good news . . . to be blessed ourselves and a blessing to those around us.” (New Proclamation 2010)

While we wait and work and pray for better days, let’s be like a cactus flower in the desert, blooming where we are planted.

      Cactus flowers – you know – grow in the adverse conditions of the desert, under hot sun with little water. They bloom in the cool night, away from the day’s withering heat. Often they can’t be touched because they are surrounded by prickles and thorns. And yet, they are one of the most beautiful of flowers.  

      Whatever our situation, even though we may feel ourselves in exile from the life we once had or hope to have, let’s bloom where we are planted. Let’s be the best and most beautiful we can be.  Amen.


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