Sermon from May 1, 2016
Text: Jeremiah 29:1-14
Rev. Todd L.Weir
What happens when we make a plan? God laughs! I’m sure you have heard that before, perhaps in other forms.
Murphy’s Law says, “What can go wrong will go wrong.”
Napolean knew that all battle plans were subject to the “fog of war,” where most of the struggle happened someplace out in the smoke and dust, and you found out who survived when it cleared.
Business Schools know it. 83 percent of all strategic plans fail to be implemented.
Dieticians, Doctors and Health clubs are well aware that failure to follow through leads to negative health impacts.
Let’s face it, our human plans are so short-sighted, we would save time, energy and undo stress by just flipping a coin, much like the Batman villain “Two-Face” who decided all things by a coin toss. Make a plan – God laughs!
Let me flip the question. What happens when God makes a plan? Jeremiah says “Surely you know I have plans for you…to do good and not evil. Trust in the promise.” What kind of plans does God have for us? What is the plan for your life? Our church? For Middle East Peace and Global Warming while we are at it? What if there is no plan? Have you often wondered if God really has a plan? Do God’s plans actually work any better than ours?
Before we explore Jeremiah’s planning guide, think for moment about the essential elements of a good plan. What are the most important elements of a good plan? Business plans are easy to come by on the internet. What do you think, according to Forbes Magazine, is the very first thing in a great business plan?
- Vision statement so you articulate what you’re trying to create; then you figure out how to do it. (That should sound familiar!)
- Good communication of the vision and an understanding of your audience. Some call this marketing, for us it is relationship building and vision alignment.
- Leadership and decision making structures so you continue to make sound judgments.
- Revenue and cash flow. (Stewardship campaigns! Notice this is last on the list.)
What could Jeremiah’s assurance that God has plans have to do with a good business plan? Let’s talk about the situation of Jeremiah’s audience first. This is a letter, so we know exactly who the audience is. Its 598 BCE, and Jeremiah writes from Jerusalem to a group of exiles in Babylon. Today we might call them refugees, or even prisoners of war. Jerusalem made a truce with Nebuchadnezzer, and the terms included a large group of priests, court officials, artisans, smiths and even the Queen Mother going into exile in Babylon, basically as hostages to assure Jerusalem’s loyalty to Babylon.
If you were in their shoes, what kind of plan would you want from God? Like most refugees your plan A is most likely to go home. These people were not looking forward to touring Nebuchadnezzer’s Hanging Gardens, even if it was one of the eight wonders of the world. This letter is written after two prophets in exile proclaim that Nebuchadnezzer is going to fall, and soon everyone is going to be released to return home. The Babylonians immediately beheaded them. So much for their plans. (Their marketing plan clearly did not understand their real audience!)
Jeremiah 29 is one of the best pastoral letters ever, right up there with Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Jeremiah has already spent 28 chapters making his mission statement clear. The best summary of all the prophets boils down to Micah 6:8, “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” From God’s perspective, justice is always first, take care of widows and orphans, evaluate your society from the bottom up, don’t neglect the poor. So how well do you think God’s plans work? Jeremiah had embodied that mission statement for over two decades, with almost no marketing success, and now that these folks are in exile, here is the next stage of the plan:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.
This is Plan B, and like it or not, it is the plan they need for the best possible life. Plan B says exile will end in 70 years. If you are an adult, you are never going home. So you need houses, gardens and work, a revenue stream, and think long-term and make a future for your children. It’s a tough truth, and Jeremiah reassures them, God’s plans are for their good and not evil, so trust in the Promise.
Here’s the real hard part. How do you think the exiles took the message to seek the welfare of Babylonians, pray to God for them, and find your common good with them in a foreign land? Here’s an exert of what exiles thought in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
O daughter Babylon, you devastator![b]
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
So I’m guessing when Jeremiah’s letter was read to these people in exile, there was not a standing ovation. It is a great miracle this letter survived. I’m surprised that people did not rip it to shreds and burn it. They couldn’t dash the babies of the Babylonians on the rocks, but they could have taken out their fury on that letter, but here it is in our Bible. Jeremiah not only said, make your home among your captors, but pray for their welfare and link your welfare to theirs.
We must take great care and discernment in understanding these words in our own exiles. Let us first acknowledge the nature of exile today. It is a reality for 60 million displaced peoples and refugees from warfare and a changing climate. That number will only grow. Read Thomas Friedman’s excellent three-part series in the NY Times about Africa’s growing number of refugees due to climate change. The top Hip Hop artist in Senegal sings about people trying to make their way to Libya. Imagine being so desperate that Libya sounds good, but maybe you can get a boat to Barcelona. He encourages youth to stay home and build the country, plant trees, build houses, make a future, there is nothing better in Europe, just being an undocumented worker dodging the police. Friedman may be a modern prophet, noting the exile today is the combination of the world being hot – global climate change causing mass migrations and conflict, being crowded – high population density for resources, and being wired – having the internet, smart phones and Facebook, unleashes a Pandora’s box of possibilities for good and evil. We have to learn to adapt and live in this new reality.
One of the most important elections this year is not just who will be our next President, it is who will be the mayor of London. In one of the most diverse cities in the world, full of Muslims from Pakistan, Hindus from India, Eastern Europeans as well as the Anglo-Saxons, the Labor party candidate is the first Muslim to run for mayor, and he is an advocate for same sex marriage, women’s equality and tolerance for immigrants. He does not compute for people on all sides. How the world deals with exile will determine our future – in London elections, and in refugee camps, at the Texas border and in bathrooms in North Carolina and water treatment plants in Flint, Michigan, tree planters in Senegal, some people are even exiled from the communion table.
Those lofty words will require a great deal of effort, challenge and discernment, just as Israel’s exiles in Babylon had to do in the midst of people whom they felt were enemies. So how do you think they did with Jeremiah’s message. These exiles created and edited the Talmud, what we know as the Old Testament today. They saved the stories and organized them and wrote more. Our Bible study is studying their work in Second Isaiah, a prophet in exile. He wrote all the words we have turned into hymns like “Comfort, Comfort O My People” and “Eagles Wings.” When these exiles finally came home and rebuilt Jerusalem they brought with them a spirit of greater tolerance openness to other people. Jesus quoted from their works more than any other parts of the Bible, and his message of the last shall be first, embrace the leper, love your enemies, is shaped by the prophets of exile, who truly understood that we are all one, like it or not, or we will not be.
The United Church of Christ took on as its original mission statement in 1957, Jesus’s prayer “that they may all be one.” Since then we have extended beyond ecumenism to civil rights, gay rights, disabilities rights, to embrace whoever you are, wherever you come from, you are welcome here. We are a denomination of theological exiles fleeing biblical literalism ad fundamentalism. The American Baptist Churches today are the first originally white denomination in America to become a minority majority, embracing exiles from Burma, Latin America and across the world. Our vision, as this small outpost of Jesus people in Northampton, is to build and plant a home for exiles of all types, and proclaim a message that we are all one. God has plans for us, plans for good and not evil, trust in the promise.