Hope That Stings

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, October 9, 2016
Taken from Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

How could this have happened? I thought we were God’s people. God was supposed to protect us! I thought Jerusalem was the city of God. It’s the city of David, with the Temple Solomon built, where I go to pray and worship and bring sacrifices,… How can this be? I don’t understand it.

The things I’ve seen…

I watched their soldiers march arrogantly down the streets, right past my house. They looted the shop where I work, they humiliated our soldiers and I watched them kill innocent children, just because they could.

And then when they had us completely defeated, they humiliated us, led away all of the priests and leaders that hadn’t been killed, and they marched us here, hundreds of miles in the scorching sun, blisters on our feet, all the way to this filthy city of Babylon.

The people here mock us, laughing at us and our God, telling us to “sing a happy song”. But how could we? After everything we’ve been through!?

What are we going to do? When will God come and rescue us? When can we go back home?

[Choir sings “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept for Zion. We remember Zion.”]

It is to these mournful exiles in Babylon that Jeremiah writes his letter.

It would be hard for us to overstate the confusion, grief, and despair they felt, their entire world having been ripped away from them. All they could do was cling to the hope that God would finally show up, to rescue them and restore the life they knew and loved in Jerusalem.

Jeremiah, God’s prophet, finally speaks… and says no.

We read his letter to the exiles a few minutes ago, but hear these words again now from the perspective of the few survivors desperate to return home:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what the produce.” Get married. Have children. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”

In other words: settle in, you’re not going anywhere.

Exile was here to stay.

Have you ever been there? Not to Babylon, of course, but exile was far more than a physical place. Exile was living in situation that felt strange and foreign. For them, it meant political defeat, cultural devastation, religious humiliation. But exile also meant not being able to envision any hopeful future. Exile was longing for home, while doubting you could ever go back.

For us, exile takes many forms: circumstances we didn’t choose and would do anything to escape. Perhaps you know exactly what I’m talking about. For some, exile has taken the shape of a crushing grief, when someone so dear to us has died that our lives no longer feel like home to us. For some, exile has been a new diagnosis, a new reality that slowly settles in but still doesn’t feel real.

For the people of Haiti and others affected by the hurricane this week, even home become a place of exile.

Or perhaps for you, exile was less dramatic, not a sudden catastrophe but more a vague, persistent feeling that this just isn’t right. We look around us and wonder, what in the world are we doing here? Everything seems foreign and strange, not the life we once knew or once imagined for ourselves.

Whether traumatic or gradual, exile leaves us feeling like the exiles on the Babylonian riverbank, wondering if we will ever get home.

Has everyone here seen the Disney movie Aladdin? It premiered when I was 7 years old, prime Disney-watching age, so I watched it over and over. The scenes of that movie are with me forever. In one of those scenes, Aladdin makes his first official wish. After much deliberation and counsel from the Genie (voiced so amazingly by Robin Williams), Aladdin decides to become a prince. The genie excitedly says to him, “Say the magic words.” “Genie, I wish for you to make me a prince.” “ALL RIGHT!!” Through the magic of Disney, we see Aladdin transformed into “Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa”, perched atop an elephant, parading into town with his entourage, singers and dancers all around…

Wouldn’t it be easier if God were a genie in a bottle. Rub the lamp, make a wish, your dreams come true. What those exiles in Babylon would have given for God to swoop in like the Genie and grant them a glorious return to Jerusalem! And what we would give sometimes for just one wish, to set things right…

God doesn’t work that way. Sometimes things do turn out the way we want, and we give thanks, but sometimes they don’t. Wish-granting is not how God operates.

Not for us, and not for the exiles.

After all, when Jeremiah turns up with a message from God, the message was: no, you’re not getting your wish. You’re not going anywhere.

If this was good news, it’s not the good news they wanted. If this is a word of hope, it’s hope that stings.

So, is it good news? Is this hope?

Well, if hope means returning to a time when things were better, then, no. Sometimes there is no going back.

But in the passage we read today, God brings a different kind of hope.

God’s message to the exiles, to the mournful remnant weeping on the riverbanks, was this: there is life here. Yes, this is Babylon, but there is a life here for you. God invites them to live again. God gives them permission to make lives for themselves, even in exile. To a people who had hung up their harps, God suggests there is a new song to be sung.

And you know what? That’s what happened. Slowly, the days passed, and turned into weeks and months and years. Houses were built, and seeds planted. Children were born and raised, and life began to move forward again. Slowly, they began to rediscover vitality and joy, to laugh and to sing, and to rebuild their community. Slowly, hope returned to their lives.

This is also a message of hope for us.

I suggested earlier a few ways that we might experience exile: grief, illness, and we could go on and on: moving to a new place, loneliness, broken relationships, loss of a job—there are countless ways we can find ourselves feeling lost, hopeless. There are countless ways that we hang up our harps and don’t know how to sing the old songs any more.

Often what we pray for is for God to take away whatever bad situation we’re in. But sometimes God gives us a different kind of hope, one that stings at first, because everything doesn’t magically get fixed, but in time,  we begin to find new life again, and to glimpse the future that God has in store. If that is where you are, I pray that the God of resurrection will help you to find what it means to live life abundantly once more.

But perhaps you are not there right now; perhaps things are pretty much going okay. There’s another component to this message that applies to our everyday life, and to understand that, we turn, as you might expect, to… salad dressing.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book and popular TED talk called “The Paradox of Choice” describes going to his supermarket and finding 175 different salad dressings to choose from, along with 285 kinds of cookies, 230 soups, 40 toothpastes… you get the idea. He argues that we have so many choices that we actually end up being less happy: we wonder if one of those other 174 salad dressings would have been a little bit better; and if the one we choose isn’t amazing, then we blame ourselves for choosing wrong.

Our anxiety and regret over salad dressing is incredibly trivial, of course, but this phenomenon extends to the more significant choices in our lives as well. Which college to attend, which major to declare, which career path to follow? Where do we decide to live? Where do we go to church? What kind of family should we have?

Those decisions deserve to be made thoughtfully, but sometimes once we’ve made a choice, we get stuck wondering “what-if.” What if I’d taken a different path? Is there something else out there that would have been better?

In small and large ways, we can get stuck looking backward, living halfway in a world of regret, or longing after imaginary alternatives.

The exiles certainly found themselves there, right? Living in Babylon, but not really. Their hearts were in Jerusalem, still yearning for a life that was no longer there.

God, speaking through Jeremiah, invites them to live fully where they are. And us too. Be free of regret, of wondering what other worlds might have been. Here you are. And here is okay.

Which brings us to one final way of seeing this message from Jeremiah: not just as individuals, but as a community. After all, Jeremiah’s words were addressed to the people, collectively. So is there a message here for us as University Baptist Church?

We are currently in a time of transition, beginning a search for our next senior pastor, hoping that we can find the perfect person for our church. But you know as well as I do that when we do call someone, she or he will not be perfect. And–I hope this isn’t a shock to you–we’re not perfect either.

Transitional times are difficult. Perhaps if you’ve been around here for many years, you’ve had the experience lately of looking around our congregation and saying, where am I? Is this UBC? This doesn’t seem like the church the way I remember it…

Or perhaps you are new to UBC, testing the waters or visiting for the first time, considering whether this is the right community to be a part of. It doesn’t take long to find things you like and things you’re unsure about…

We’re not perfect.

I wonder if Jeremiah’s message for us might be that it’s okay to invest ourselves in place that isn’t perfect; an invitation just to do it, or not; but not to stand halfway in and halfway out, a foot in the door and a foot on the outside, wondering if there’s something better out there. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But Jeremiah seems to suggest that there is life to be found wherever you are. You don’t have to hold out for something better. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” writes Jeremiah, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

A few years ago, a young couple moved to Charlottesville and visited UBC. They went back and forth for a little while about whether it was the right church for them, and they quickly noticed there weren’t very many young adults their age. But they decided to stay, saying that, if every young adult who visited didn’t come back because there weren’t enough young people, then there never would be. If they stayed, though, when the next young adults visited, there would be someone else their age here to greet them. They decided to build their home here, to plant, and to trust what God would do. (Sure enough, a few years later, when Erin and I came back to Charlottesville, they were here to greet us.) I know that, generation by generation, this church is what it is because of the people who have decided to make this their home and then work toward what it might yet be.

Now listen, I’m not trying to lay down a guilt trip to say you must come here and commit to this church. I’m happy if you do, but it’s not for me to say what God wants for you. But I do want to lift up the invitation that I hear in this text, which says that sometimes God does invite us to be fully where we are, even if it’s not the place we’d imagined for ourselves. Be liberated from the never-ending cycle of “what-ifs.” In church, in relationships, in careers, in school: build houses, plant gardens, make a life for yourself here, and it may be that you discover God here as well.

That was certainly the case for the homesick Jewish exiles. From their place of weeping by the rivers of Babylon, they heard God’s voice calling back them to life, calling them to sing new songs, even in a strange land. This was not what they wanted, and it stung at first, but in time they found that this was indeed God’s hope for them, and God was still with them there. In the words of the hymn we will sing in a few moments, “the seeds [they] watered once with tears sprang up into a song.”

May it be so for us, as individuals and as a congregation. Amen.