A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 20, 2011
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Matthew 6:28-29 GNT
Perhaps you can recall a time when you found yourself in a place where you didn’t really want to be. Maybe you found yourself in a school that left you feeling unhappy or out of place. Or maybe you were in military service on a faraway field. Maybe it was an extended stay in the hospital or nursing home, if not yourself then with a loved one. Maybe you were living in a house, a community, or a state that was not where you wanted to live. Maybe you found yourself trapped in a job that was unrewarding. In short, maybe you felt somewhat like an exile—one removed or carried away to an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, less-than-hoped-for place. If so, then you can identify with the recipients of Jeremiah’s letter.
Jeremiah wrote in the 6th century B.C.E. to Jewish exiles who had been carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon. The heart of Jeremiah’s message in today’s reading was that the exiles just needed to accept their fate. They were in exile, in servitude in a strange land, and they were going to be there for some time—about 70 years in fact. So they might as well make up their minds that they were going to make the best of it. Don’t fight it, Jeremiah said. Come to terms with your situation. Carry on with your lives. As The Message contemporary translation puts it:
“Build houses and make yourselves at home.
Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country.
Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children. . .
Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare.
Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.” (TM, Jer. 29:5-7).
The exiles are encouraged to seek life abundant in this strange and difficult place. In other words, the hopeful message and encouragement of Jeremiah is simple: Like wildflowers, try to blossom where you’re planted.
A well-known prayer that has come to be known as the “Serenity Prayer” accords well with Jeremiah’s message. The prayer has something to say to us about our response to less-than-hoped-for circumstances. The author of that well-known prayer was Reinhold Niebuhr, a Missouri-born minister who was ordained in the German Evangelical Synod Church, one of the four denominations that came together to form the United Church of Christ. Niebuhr is regarded as one of the most significant Christian thinkers of the 20th Century. Over the years, he has won admiration from political leaders from both the right and the left. In 1948, he was on the cover of Time magazine. In 1976 President Jimmy Carter acknowledged Niebuhr’s influence on his life. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama declared himself to be one of Niebuhr’s biggest fans and that Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Republican presidential candidate John McCain also spoke of Niebuhr and wondered what Niebuhr would say about the war in Iraq. So Niebuhr’s influence has extended to both ends of the political spectrum.
But back to the point. Regarding the “Serenity Prayer,” the story goes that Dr. Niebuhr jotted down a few lines for a prayer he was to offer one Sunday during worship. After the service, someone asked for a copy of the prayer, which Niebuhr had folded up and put away and forgotten about. Out of his pocket Reinhold Niebuhr drew the lines that have become one the most familiar of American prayers. Most every Christian bookstore has it or some variation of it (as some popular versions are not in Niebuhr’s original words) on plaques, coffee mugs, and other items. Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer goes like this:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things that should be changed,
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
As Niebuhr’s prayer illustrates, sometimes life deals us situations or circumstances that we cannot change, no matter how much faith we might have or how hard we might try. Sometimes, we just need to learn to accept the circumstances or situations as they are. Such is what Jeremiah was saying as well. But at other times we have the ability, resources, or power to change circumstances for the better. When that is the case, we should do so with boldness and giving it all we’ve got. But in all cases we have the freedom to decide how we will respond to life’s circumstances. We can decide to blossom, even if we are not planted where we would choose to be planted.
Speaking of blossoming, wildflowers have a great lesson to teach us about thriving where we are planted. While still living in New York, every now and then Mary Lou and I would take a couple of hours and drive out to Five Rivers Environmental Center, an educational nature park near Delmar, New York, that has a learning center, several hiking trails, a large pond, birdhouses, wildflowers, and a number of forms of wildlife—sort of like the Iams Center in Knoxville. One of our favorite Five River trails goes way back into the fields and woods. During one of our last visits there, before moving to Oak Ridge, we took an aside path that appeared to go nowhere. Once we got beyond a line of trees, we found a huge field—acres upon acres—of wildflowers (or “weedflowers” as I sometimes call them, as I often don’t know the difference). But they were beautiful! Why would a large field of wildflowers be planted way back in the fields off the beaten path where very few people could enjoy them? This was a question that kept going through my mind. The answer to that question is at least twofold: First, the Monarch butterflies and the bees were thoroughly enjoying them. I got a number of photographs that afternoon of Monarch Butterflies (one of which I shared with the children earlier) that I have shared with friends and family members. And then the second lesson that spoke to me was the wildflowers were blossoming where they were planted. They were fulfilling their purpose, blossoming in exile, in a faraway place, off the beaten path, as it were.
The psalmist, in speaking of those who constantly meditate upon and try to follow the way of God, compares them to
“tree(s) replanted in Eden,
Bearing fresh fruit every month,
Never dropping a leaf,
Always in blossom.” (Psalm 1:2-3 TM) Always in blossom.
Such is the challenge for each of us sometimes, isn’t it? To always be in blossom, no matter where we might be.
But permit me to go one step further and consider this idea collectively: As the United Church we are encouraged to blossom where we are planted. Now, as a congregation, we certainly are not in exile. And we wouldn’t say that we’re somewhere we don’t want to be. Nevertheless, our current situation does pose some challenges for us as we look to the future. Whereas our location—Jackson Square—once was the bustling center of town, it no longer is so. We are sort of off the beaten path, unlike the churches on the Oak Ridge Turnpike that are very visible. That poses a little bit of a challenge, since one of the maxims of church growth says the three most important considerations in planting a new church are location, location, location. And whereas the Alexander Inn once was a beautiful facility that attracted the most elite, it no longer is so. In fact, it is no secret to any of us that the Alexander Inn in its present condition is now a liability to the United Church. It is an eyesore. And it is the first impression that new people see when they turn off Kentucky Avenue looking for our church. Yet another consideration is as a congregation (and we are not alone in this regard) we find ourselves planted in a town where the average or median age is higher than the state average. Now, I am not trying to be a prophet of gloom and doom. But all of these factors make growth a little bit of a challenge. And we have to be willing to face reality.
Nevertheless, we are called to blossom where we are planted. But what does that really mean in practical terms? These are the types of questions that we as your Church Board are asking and hope to try to answer this year.
Well, returning to where we began, being in a less-than-ideal situation or a place in our lives where we would rather not be is no easy matter. However, like those to whom Jeremiah spoke, sometimes all of us find ourselves there. But even in the midst of such wilderness situations, there is hope. The hope as proclaimed by Jeremiah is that the Sacred is present with us and is greater than the most desperate circumstances of our lives. Life and blessing and peace and growth often are possible, even outside our familiar comfort zone. With Jeremiah’s exhortations is an assurance that possibilities for a good life and for Divine blessings can continue, even in exile, even in less-than-hoped-for conditions. The challenge for us is to find a way to blossom where we are planted. Amen.