Sunday, October 10, 2010

Be Where You Are: Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1-7

I grew up with a mother who always gave the impression she was in our beautiful seaside town under protest. While I was grateful and thrilled to be on the beach every day all summer long, and in the ocean most of that day, my mom never got over the loss of the home she truly loved: a city block in South Philadelphia. Mom complained bitterly about the trees at the shore (and we didn’t have that many, to be honest). She claimed that if you placed her between two trees she promptly got lost. I loved sand between my toes and the smell of salt in the air. Mom loved the sound of the trolley bell and the hard pavement beneath her feet. It was an odd situation for a child: My mom was not at home in our home.

Years later I had a tiny taste of what my mother experienced. I had lived in BeanTown 12 years when we decided to move to this place so that my then-husband could go to graduate school. I was a stay-at-home mom with an almost-three-year-old, and I was leaving almost everyone and everything I loved… friends, colleagues, our faith community. I told myself it would be fine, it would just be for a few years. And when I arrived here, I’ll be honest, there were a few months of real loneliness, true displacement. I remember driving my red Volvo 240 to the park with Larry in his car seat, listening to music I associated with BeanTown friends, and wondering, would I ever feel at home in this new place? Twenty years later, not only is this my home, it is my beloved home. I’ve lived her longer than I lived anywhere, including the house I grew up in. My mom was never able to feel at home in the town where I grew up. I found my true home here in this community.

What makes a place “home”? And what does it mean to lose a home, a sense of being in the “place just right”? We read stories about people losing their homes fairly regularly—whether we are thinking about the those displaced by the mudslide in Oaxaca, Mexico, or people whose homes were taken by foreclosure, the Native Americans forced onto the Trail of Tears, or the thousands of people who are still not able to return to the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. My mother and I were both able to participate in the decisions that led to our leaving one home to try to find another. The most devastating stories of exile are the stories of those who had no choice. They are the stories like the one found in this morning’s scripture passage.

Our passage is from a section of Jeremiah called the “Book of Consolation.” It contains words of encouragement from God to the exiles—those described in verse 1: “the remaining elders among the exiles… the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” One professor of Hebrew Scriptures describes the exile this way:

It was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world.

Imagine if their story was our story:

Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady, Cabinet and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh have been separated from their families and exiled as well.
[1]
There is one piece of the ancient Hebrews’ experience that is not translatable to our diverse and multicultural 21st century experience: the loss of the Temple. At the same moment the Babylonian armies killed or carried off the learned and artisan classes, they also destroyed Solomon’s magnificent Temple, including, presumably, the contents of the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. The Babylonians trashed the place that was believed to hold, to house God’s very presence on earth. The tangible expression of God’s care and protection was obliterated. * (After delivering the sermon, I was informed that there is indeed a modern day equivalent of the Temple, the Holy of Holies: Yankee Stadium.)

Jeremiah, responding to this devastating situation, sends this message by royal emissary:

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 29:4-7

To people who are still mourning the homes from which they have been torn, God says: build new ones. To people who remember with tears the backbreaking labor they put into cultivating the land, God says: plant more crops, and then eat them. To people who look at their neighbors with suspicion and dread, God says: get to know them. More than that, marry them, and have children, and let your children marry. More than that: pray for them, pray for your captors, the Babylonians.

I believe there is a fairly profound and simple truth at the heart of God’s instructions to the exiles—simple, though not necessarily easy. You have to be where you are. For some reason, this truth dawned on me fairly quickly when I was a young mom riding around the Southern Tier with a toddler in the back of my car. I realized I needed to be at home, wherever I was—I am not, by nature, a transient creature. And so, before I’d given it much thought, I was trying out for the Madrigal Choir, and running for a seat on the pre-school board. I knew if I wanted to be happy, I needed to start acting as if this was home. Before long, I wasn’t acting any more.

This truth holds at a deeper level, as well. “Be where you are” is a kind of catch phrase expressing what Buddhists call mindfulness, the practice of being truly aware. Buddhism is organized around the basic principle that life is hard—people find themselves “exiled” in all sorts of ways, and for all sorts of reasons, and there are ways to cope that help us to wear our difficulties more lightly. Perhaps ironically, mindfulness, paying attention, is one such strategy. And it’s surprisingly easy to do. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh gives these instructions:

Every time you feel lost, alienated, or cut off from life, or from the world, every time you feel despair, anger, or instability, practice going home. Mindful breathing is the vehicle that you use to go back to your true home.

You don’t have to do anything very special. You just become aware of the fact that you are breathing in. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out… and suddenly I find I am totally alive, totally present. And this everyone can do, and it makes a big difference. Our true home is life, and life is in the present moment, in the here and the now. That is the address of true life.
[2]

Something like this can happen when we turn our attention to our own spiritual disciplines, when we pray, when we practice experiencing the presence of God, simply enjoying God’s company. We recognize that we are home, our true home. And here is the other level at which this truth operates: if we are going to “be where we are,” we also have to be willing to “start where we are.” I’ve been talking with a small group about the challenge of incorporating things like prayer into our daily lives. It’s not easy. One of the reasons it’s not easy is that we have this preconceived notion of where we “should be” what we “should be doing,” and it feels so far removed from what we are actually doing, it paralyzes us. I see my ideal round of spiritual disciplines as including daily prayer, scripture reading, meditation, and walking—but if I’m not yet doing all of these, I can feel so overwhelmed it stops me in my tracks from trying to do any of these.

The answer to this conundrum is to start where we are. If we want to pray, then we pray today—without reference to or criticism of whether or not we prayed yesterday. If we want to read scripture, we open the book today—we don’t give up because today’s Friday and we didn’t do it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. We start where we are, because today is our true home. We start where we are, because it’s too easy to let ourselves feel exiled from the people we want to be instead of embracing the people we actually are already. We start where we are, because this day—the planting of these bulbs, the listening to this child, the holding the hand of this parent—is all we truly have. We start where we are, because it is not God’s true desire for us to live in exile, but for us to be home—in our true home, in God, in this day, in this life—whenever and wherever and however we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Associate Professor, Hebrew and Old Testament, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, at workingpreacher.com: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=10/10/2010.
[2] Thich Nhat Hanh, Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions, as found at http://www.mindfulness.com/2010/09/21/mindful-breathing-is-a-way-back-to-your-true-home/.

2 comments:

Songbird said...

That's really helpful, Mags. Thanks. I do a lot of backward-glancing, with a critical flavor, and I need the encouragement to be where I am right now.

Magdalene6127 said...

So happy to hear that dear one. So great to talk to you yesterday! (o)