We all know it. Life isn’t always easy and joyful, and there’s no point in pretending that it is. Our whole lives long we know, for example, that we are all mortal. We will all pass away, but sometimes it’s harder when a loved one dies. We know that Pastor Meighan is living that very difficult experience as we gather this morning. Let us keep her and her mother always in our prayers for comfort and peace. Beyond that, of course, we are still in the midst of a virus pandemic in which over 6 million people have died, over 1 million of them in this country. That pandemic has disrupted all of our lives and caused massive misery around the world, and (despite what President Biden said) it isn’t over. Illness and death are just part of what it is to be human. At times we all face hardships of one sort or another—hardships over personal relationships, economic difficulties, and of many other types as well. If you’re like me in this way, and I suspect that most of you are, the news has been nearly nothing but hideously bad for the past several years. The Trumpists, most of them true American fascists, have taken over the Republican Party that was once one of our two great, dominant political parties. They do not believe in democracy, they believe only in power for themselves and their Dear Leader Donald Trump. They will destroy American democracy if they can, a prospect that terrifies many of us. We are appalled by the continuing prevalence of racism and other forms of hatred in our country. Perhaps it’s because, as some of you know, I have a PhD in Russian history, have lived among the Russians for an academic year, and have been to Kyiv (which we used to call by its Russian name Kiev), but the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war crimes Russian soldiers are committing there have been heavy on my heart for over 7 months now. I don’t know all the hardships each of you face or have faced in your lives, but I know that you do or have faced them. Yes, life can be filled with love and joy, but it also unavoidably has its numerous kinds of hardships. We all need to discern how we are going to deal with those hardships, and doing that is usually far from easy.
It has ever been so. This morning we heard some verses from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. They tell of a letter Jeremiah sent to Hebrew exiles in Babylon. The setting of that letter is that in about 597 BCE the Babylonian Empire out of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) had besieged Jerusalem, captured some of its leading citizens, and hauled them off to forced exile in Babylon. The situation Jeremiah is addressing is not the final Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the exile of that Hebrew people that occurred in 586 BCE, but it’s plenty bad enough. A significant number of people were taken to a very foreign place far from home. It was linguistically, culturally, politically, and religiously radically different from the ways they knew back home. Perhaps most significantly, they had believed that the temple in Jerusalem was the cornerstone of their faith. It was the only place where they could offer the animal sacrifices to God that their faith required. Now that temple was some 600 miles across the desert away and completely inaccessible to them. The didn’t know when or even if they would ever get to go home. Surely they resented and hated the Babylonians, and just as surely they never thought they were supposed to prosper in Babylon.
Then they got this weird letter from the prophet Jeremiah, who was still back home in Jerusalem. It said that its message came from the people’s God, not just from Jeremiah himself. The letter gave the exiles this advice:
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 NRSV.
I imagine that the people who received his letter thought Jeremiah was nuts. He wants us to do what?! Live here as though this were home? Pray for the Babylonians? You’ve got to be kidding! We don’t want to pray for the Babylonians, we want to pray for their destruction! They’re all bad guys! Why should we pray for them? What do you mean in their welfare we will find our welfare? Our welfare lies on our getting to go home, not in planting roots in this Godforsaken place!
Pretty clearly, there are two ways we can react when things go bad, and things go bad at times for all of us. We can react emotionally. That is, we can be angry. We can feel overwhelmed. We can be greatly irritated or deeply depressed. We can however also respond more constructively. We can accept what we cannot change. We can resolve to make the best of what we cannot change. That’s what Jeremiah told the exiles in Babylon to do. They couldn’t end their exile. They couldn’t just leave and go home. Their captors were far too powerful for that. So Jeremiah said, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Yes, what happened to you is terrible; but since you can’t change it, make the best of it. Even when you’re in captivity to a foreign power, God wants as good a life for you as is possible. So don’t decay, live the best you can.
Those exiles may not have wanted to hear it, but I believe that Jeremiah actually gave them good advice. He didn’t mean don’t hope for a restoration of home. But he said live as best you can as long as that doesn’t happen. And don’t think Jeremiah would say that in no circumstances should we work to change our circumstances. Jeremiah isn’t saying don’t work to make things better. He is saying exactly the opposite. Do work to make things better, but be realistic. Discern what is possible and what isn’t. Maybe making things better means overcoming and eliminating what’s wrong. Or maybe it means accepting what’s wrong because you cannot end it. Knowing which of those circumstances you face isn’t always easy, but we must always discern which of them we’re in.
That’s true both for individuals and for institutions like a church. Take churches like this one, for example. We all know that small, progressive churches like Prospect are struggling more today than they did in the past. So often the people of those churches think of no way out of their difficulties than recreating what used to be. We used to have lots of young families with children, they say, so let’s get lots of young families with children. Their vision of their church is only a vision of what used to be. But just as Jeremiah’s exiles in Babylon couldn’t go home, so can our churches today not go back to what they once were. Jeremiah told the exiles to understand the new though unwanted world in which they lived, then keep on keeping on. God, he says, has given you life even though you don’t like the circumstances of that life. So live. Bloom where you’re planted. Understand your world and get on with creating the abundant life God wants for you as best you can.
That’s good advice for us in our personal lives too. None of us avoids hardship forever. When we encounter hardship we face the same choices those ancient Hebrew exiles in Babylon faced. We can let the hardship overwhelm us. We can stay angry or resentful or depressed. Or we can say, OK, it is what it is, and we can discern what makes the best of it for us not the worst. Maybe that means removing the hardship. Overcome economic hardship, for example, by getting new work even if we need to be retrained to get it. But maybe it means accepting the illness you cannot cure, treat it medically as best you can, and live with it as fully as you can for as long as you can. In either case, our call is to keep on keeping on. That’s what God wants for us, and God is always with us as a guide and source of strength as we do it.
So this morning, let us all be realistic about whatever hardships we face as individuals and as a church. Let’s be realistic about the hardships we face as a nation and as a world. Let us discern well what will make the best of a bad situation for us. That is God’s way for us. So let us discern well, and let us keep on keeping on. May it be so. Amen.