By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down;
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
There the wicked carried us away in captivity,
Required from us a song.
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
– Boney M, Rivers of Babylon
Indeed, how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
The lyric question sings a sad song of broken dreams, and most everyone has felt the stinging pain of dashed hopes and petered-out plans.
But shattered aspirations actually can change lives for the better, and that’s the gist of this morning’s lesson – a letter from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah to the Israelites, God’s people who at the moment are displaced from their homes in Jerusalem and living in exile among their Babylonian conquerors.
For generations, the Israelites called Jerusalem their home, because they believed God lived in Jerusalem. Their dreams had come true! God was in their midst, and life was good.
Then, in storms the Babylonians, who send the Israelites off to live in a strange land. Exile not only robs them of their perceived proximity to God, but exile also erases their identity as a people and drains away their deep reservoir of peace and prosperity.
Some false prophets are spewing fake news that exile won’t last long – a couple years tops, and if the Israelites just fight back against their captors, they’ll regain their freedom in no time.
But Jeremiah pushes back with a startling message that no one wants to hear: You’re in this for the long haul, so settle in, get comfortable, and establish some roots. As the saying goes, bloom where you’re planted!
And even harder to hear, God desires the displaced Israelites to be instruments of prosperity for the nation that has enslaved them. No thanks to the Babylonians, the lives of God’s people take a sharp turn for the worse, and now, God wants them to give their dreaded enemies a social, economic, and cultural boost.
None of it makes a whole lot of sense – at least by the conventions of the world, anyway. But that’s why God gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to sort things out and listen for the Word of the Lord.
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. 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)
My wife and I take different approaches when we get check into a hotel. As soon as we get to our room, I unpack my suitcase, put my socks and underwear in the dresser, and hang my shirts and pants on the rack. I designate a spot for my wallet, my keys, and my room card, and I arrange my toiletries in the bathroom.
I like to settle in. Having a place for everything and having everything in its place make the hotel feel like home. Even though it’ll only be home for a just few days, I like to put down some roots.
Julie, on the other hand, moves into a hotel room with reckless abandon and far less organizational obsession. She usually lives out of her suitcase, and what’s not in her suitcase tends to be spread liberally and freely around our room. Her purse resides wherever she puts it, and her room card, well, let’s just say she often has to borrow mine.
There’s nothing really wrong with Julie’s approach, I suppose. It probably makes more sense, actually. After all, we won’t be staying in the room for but a few days. So, why bother going to all the trouble of setting up housekeeping when you’re most definitely a short-timer?
At what point, I wonder, did the Israelites feel that way about the messiness of their lives in Babylonian exile?
Why bother unpacking? Why bother finding places for everything? Why bother putting it all away? We won’t be here for long, so, let’s just live out of our suitcases until we check out of here.
Then, along comes Jeremiah with a surprising message that unravels the exiles’ dreams of hitting the road back to Jerusalem any time soon.
“Unpack and settle in,” says Jeremiah.
Unpack, settle in, build homes, plant gardens, find partners, and have children.
To a people living out of suitcases and longing for home, Jeremiah’s is hard news to hear – and it’s made even harder, because this “new normal” of living will apply not just to them but also to at least a couple generations who come after.
And then stabs the sharp dagger of even greater disappointment and heartache: Take care of the people who are causing your pain.
“Seek the peace and prosperity of the place where I’ve sent you,” God says via Jeremiah. “And pray for those who’ve enslaved you! For when they prosper, you prosper, too.” The Israelites have lost everything, and now the Lord wants his people to care for their captors.
The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, apparently still desires to be the God of goodness for the exiles, apparently still intends on blessing the Israelites with near presence, and apparently now plans on being the God of goodness and blessing for the Babylonians, too!
How definitely different do our lives unfold when we trust and follow God – maybe even to the point of letting go of our own dreams to make way for the fulfillment of God’s dreams.
And here, by the rivers of Babylon, God dreams of two communities becoming one – victors and vanquished, separated by intense difference and real conflict, coming together in restoration of right relationship.
God dreams of outsiders welcomed as insiders, of swords beaten into ploughshares, of enemies becoming friends, of rising tides floating all boats.
Those dreams for the Kingdom of God are shared and reshared time and time again in the pages of Scripture – in the story of the dreaded Samaritan whose roadside compassion to another earns him the title “good”; in Paul’s letters that reach out to the Gentiles with assurance that God’s grace and mercy are for them, too; in the faces of that ragtag group of scallywags and outcasts whom Jesus willingly invites to follow him and his dream.
These days, we’re all living like exiles in what feels like a strange world of broken dreams. COVID-19 and political rancor have thrust us into the uncomfortable confines of an exilic “new normal” that nobody wanted or planned.
We’re divided and separated as a community.
We’re a long way off from working for the welfare and prosperity of all.
And the only prayer we utter for our enemies, I suspect, is that they’ll just throw in the towel, screw their heads on straight, and start seeing things the way we see it. America: Love it, or leave it.
Some probably wish that the enemy would just drop dead, and the rising body count suggests that the sick idea is catching on.
Yet, we shouldn’t have to choose between caring for ourselves first and caring for the community last – if at all. We shouldn’t have to choose – truly the Lord doesn’t want us to choose, because each side is one and the same, part and parcel of the whole, all part of God’s beloved creation, warts and all.
You and I are the community. And whatever one of us does for the benefit of all, however small the gesture, makes a collective impact that serves the common good – no matter the side you’re on, no matter the tribe you claim.
Spiritual writer Mark Nepo tells a tale of two tribes.
In the beginning, when the first humans of different tribes came across each other, Mr. Nepo imagines the fearful ones saying to the strangers, “You’re different. Go away.” And that was the beginning of the “Go Away” tribe.
The other tribe said to the fearful ones, “You’re different. Come teach me.” And that was the beginning of the “Come Teach Me” tribe.
Over the millennia since then, Mr. Nepo believes, our reactions to those who are different are essentially the same: “Go Away” and “Come Teach Me.”
And since the beginning, the two tribes have had different philosophies. The Go Away tribe believes human beings are self-serving, dangerous and untrustworthy. They are in need of control. The Go Away Tribe believes in stringent constraints both moral and legal to ensure people don’t run amok.
In contrast, the Come Teach Me tribe believes people are kind and trustworthy. The tribe cultivates laws and regulations that nurture and encourage people to develop their gifts through mutual understanding and shared relationship.
Over the course of history, times of our greatest enlightenment demonstrate the philosophy of Come Teach Me tribe, Mr. Nepo writes. Theirs is an approach that fosters curiosity and learning, compassion and cooperation. Empowered by trust, the Come Teach Me tribe discovers the interdependence of all people – the essential need for people of all stripes on whom everyone depends. We all need each other, and the diversity of our gifts makes our lives whole and our communities strong.
The challenges of life hand out invitations to membership in both tribes – the Go Aways and the Come Teach Mes.
And we have the capacity to move from one tribe to another based on the levels of our fear for the other and our trust in the desires of God. If we exercise a little less fear and a little more trust, then the Spirit of God, by grace, brings the separate tribes back together as one, because both groups are part of the collective fold established and ordered by God’s always-good design.
And thus, our lives, our loves, and our sufferings together reflect our struggle toward wholeness – our struggles with God and our struggles with each other.
Those struggles for wholeness – the ingredients of our dreams – are what Jeremiah lifts up in his letter:
Peace, fullness, and prosperity – not just for a privileged few but for all. And God invites us to discover peace, fullness and prosperity – to discover shalom – by building communities where all can and do flourish fully in their working and living.
If we’re truly committed to being the church – if we’re truly committed to being believers in God and followers of Jesus, then it’s time to open ourselves to the teaching of others who are, in whatever ways, different than we are.
When the Spirit invites us into that relationship of listening and learning, we don’t charge in like bulls in a china shop as saviors or fixers with all the right answers, and we don’t bust in to judge or condemn. We go in, with curious minds and open hearts, to build community and establish relationship.
And it demands courage, trust, vulnerability, humility, and generosity – the very stuff of the Holy Spirit – to extend the olive branch of invitation: Don’t go away, but instead, come teach me.
For some, that sounds like a nightmare scenario – the kind of learning that results in shattered dreams. But it’s also the kind of learning that fulfills God’s dreams – God’s long-held desires for the kind of community where each member lives, moves and breathes for the welfare, peace and prosperity of each and every person – even the ones who get in your face and scream “go away,” even the ones from whom you’d gladly go away, and even the ones whom you’d just as soon would go away.
How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
The song begins with lyric simplicity: Come, teach me. Come, tell me your story.
And it ends when everyone finally feels comfortable unpacking their bags and settling into communities that truly do feel like home.
Though it feels like our dreams of peace and prosperity have unraveled, maybe in the end that’s a good thing. Because the sacrifice of our own dreams does, in fact, make room for God’s dreams to flourish and space for God’s people to breathe.
Honestly, I don’t know if I’m there yet – ready to give up on all my hopes and dreams.
But thanks be to God, the Lord’s not ready to give up on his hopes and dreams, either.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, September 6, 2020. It is the sixth sermon of his series, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary, reflection and scholarship by Kathy Lee-Cornell, Lisle Gwynn Garrity, and Mark Nepo inform the message. (Artwork: Lauren Wright Pittman, New Roots, SanctifiedArt.org)