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"Settle In," by Zachary Helton

Jeremiah 29:1-2, 3b-14

Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to Babylon to the surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests, the prophets, and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had deported. This happened after Jehoiachin, together with the queen mother, the officials, the other leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, and the craftworkers and artisans departed from Jerusalem. The letter read: “Thus says YHWH Omnipotent, the God of Israel, to all the exiles deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses to live in. Plant gardens and eat what they grow. Marry and raise daughters and sons. Find wives for your sons and husbands for your daughters, that they may bear daughters and sons. Multiply while you are there. Do not decrease. Rather, seek the peace and the prosperity of the city to which I exiled you. Pray to YHWH for it, for if it prospers, you will prosper. This is what YHWH, the God of Israel, says: Do not let the diviners and prophets among you deceive you. Don’t listen to the dreams they dream, for they lie when they prophesy in my Name. I did not send them, declares YHWH. “Thus says YHWH: Only when the seventy years granted to Babylon are over will I visit you and fulfill my promise to bring you back to this place. I alone know my purpose for you, says YHWH, my purpose for your prosperity and my purpose not to harm you, my purpose to give you hope with a future in it. At that time you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me wholeheartedly. I will let you find me, says YHWH, and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations and all the places to which I banished you, says YHWH, and restore you to the place from which I carried you into exile.

Sermon

“Two years!” the “prophet” Hananiah dismissed. “Two years at most until YHWH breaks the yoke of our oppressors and brings liberation to Israel! Then our fortunes will be restored, and we’ll go back to normal!”

It didn’t happen.

That was 2,600 years ago, just few months after Babylon tore through Jerusalem’s walls like they were made of paper and proceeded to march Judah’s artisans, craftworkers, priests, prophets, and elders away into servitude. Even the royal family was led away in chains. Pages were torn from the story they thought they were living, and the “Chosen People” watched helplessly as they were burned to ash right along with their Holy Temple. The presence of God, like the smoke, rising up out of sight and out of reach - rising up to heaven like an offering they weren’t willing to offer.

Days passed. Then weeks. Then a month. Then two. Then, as shock gave way to growing despair, the questions tumbled through.

What do we do now?

Will it be this way from now on?

How long until we can get back to our lives?

Some, like Hananiah, were all too eager to answer those questions - anything, really, to distract from their own anxiety. Hananiah threw out reckless numbers, standing on the unstable soapbox of denial and national exceptionalism. “Two years tops,” he told the people, “then business as usual! No fear! Have faith that God will take care of us!”

It’s tempting. You know it’s tempting.

But then there was Jeremiah.

Jeremiah did not shy away from the truth. He was used to making people uncomfortable, but as far as he was concerned, that was their problem to work through, not his. Don’t misunderstand, he was afraid too, (you would have to be a fool not to be) but he was also wise enough to know willful ignorance helped nothing. One does not heal a wound by pretending it’s not there.

He heard the people cry, “What do we do now?” but his answer was different.

“You live your life,” he wrote directly. “There’s no avoiding this and no speeding through it, so settle in. You build houses and live in them. You plant gardens and you eat what they grow. You get married and raise your daughters and sons. What you do is let go of the place you wish you were, and seek the peace and prosperity of the place to which you are exiled. Learn to find your wellbeing there. Learn to find God there.”

(Then there’s this whole dramatic thing about Hananiah being wiped off of the face of the earth… but that’s another story for another day.[1])


When I hear the tone of Jeremiah’s voice, I can’t help but remember a science reporter from a podcast interview I heard a few weeks ago.

Let me just say first that if I ever wanted to feel overwhelmed for any reason, all I’d need to do is think about the number of podcasts I haven’t listened to. When I first started with podcasts, I thought I could just pick a few, work them into my routine, and keep up with them.

Ha.

As I started getting recommendations and seeking out personalities I enjoyed, my podcast library became a graveyard of broken promises. So, one morning when Claire recommended an episode of “The Daily,” the New York Times’ morning news podcast, I didn’t feel gratitude so much as a deep resentment of her unrealistic expectations of me.

Still, for a reason I don’t quite understand, I did take her advice and I did listen, and what I heard shifted my whole attitude towards our current crisis.[2]

The episode was from April 20th, 2020 (which, in COVID-time, is about 7 years ago). The host, Michael Barbaro, set the scene with a story about the president’s pressure on states to end the lockdown and reopen their economies, which sparked a debate on when and how exactly it would be best to get that ball rolling. So, to address those questions, Barbaro introduced their science reporter, Donald G. McNeil Jr.

Now, here’s what you need to know about Donald McNeil. Back in February, while the US was watching this pandemic unfold overseas with an attitude John Oliver best characterized as: “but it wouldn’t dare come here!”, McNeil was already telling people to prepare for mass lockdowns. He was telling us to brace ourselves for the deaths of people we knew personally, and warning us about an impending shortage of medical equipment. So, with respect, Barbaro put the question to him: “When and how should we start to reopen, and what does that look like?”

“Well,” McNeil started, “I’m not some dark angel looking into the future. I’m talking to experts and making predictions based on data.” He pointed out that people seemed to be saying we could expect to be back to normal by June or August and that we’d have a vaccine in about 18 months, tops… but then he said, “experts say that’s a fantasy.” In reality, we are moving into a season that might be best called “the hammer and the dance.”

First, there’s “the hammer,” he explained. Lockdown. Strict social distancing. Non-essential businesses closed. Shelter in place. Then, once deaths plateau and come down to a minimum, we start “the dance.” We dance a little bit out, we wear face masks, and we sit six feet apart at restaurants. We see how far we can inch out, and then when death rates start to skyrocket again, BAM, we’re back to “the hammer.” Then we try again. “And all of this isn’t stopping anything,” McNeil clarified, “just slowing an inevitable mass infection.”

Barbaro, the host, seemed, understandably, a little thrown by this. “How long will the ‘dance’ need to happen?” he asked. “How long until we get back to normal?” (The million-dollar question.)

McNeil replied, “It’ll end when we have a vaccine or a prophylactic pill. Or, when over 70% of the population has become infected and there’s no one really left to infect. And a vaccine within 18 months, by the way, is very optimistic, The record for developing a vaccine is mumps, which took four years in the 50’s, and even then we have to think about producing the vaccine, which is a huge undertaking.”

Barbaro interrupts. “Wait, are you saying there’s a version of this where the dance goes on, not for one year, but something like four years?”

“That’s a worst-case scenario,” McNeil said, “but it’s possible.”

Barbaro: “Just to be clear, is there a world in which the dance lasts years?”

McNeil: “Yes.”

There’s a beat. Then Barbaro says what we’re all thinking. “The idea that this could go on for years… that’s depressing, and hard to wrap your head around.”

And again, McNeil replies a direct “Yep. I know. But if we don’t go into the dance, it means there will be more infections and more deaths.”

In other words: Live your life. There’s no avoiding this and no speeding through it, so settle in. Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they grow. Let go of the place you wish you were, and seek the peace of the place to which you are exiled. Learn to find your wellbeing here. Learn to find God here.

I know how scary this sounds. If, for your own sanity, you’ve been listening to the 18 months, tops! prophets, then this may be as jarring as Jeremiah’s prognosis. But here’s the thing: when facing something this big, something so totally out of our control, some of the greatest therapeutic and pastoral practitioners of our time have taught us that our best asset is agency. Name the helplessness and let it fuel a desperation to be intentional in the present moment. Re-craft a new story, one we can own, one that liberates us to be well and love well right now in this land to which we’re exiled.

For about two months now, we’ve been operating in how-can-we-keep-it-together-until-we-get-back-to-normal mode, but I suggest we heed the voice of the prophets and settle in. Let’s plant some gardens here. Let’s build some houses. Let’s learn to seek God here and learn what it is to be the church in exile.

Now, what does that look like? We have some ideas.

Way back in the days when global pandemics were relegated to the world of dystopian sci-fi, Claire and I were excited about the prospect of walking alongside the congregation in a process of discovering, clarifying, and working through our communal story.

Who are we?

Why are we here?

What is our work in this particular season and place?

When we invite people to Northminster, what is the story we’re inviting them into?

We actually wanted to start having this conversation at the Coordinating Council retreat in March, but obviously, that didn’t pan out. (You know… because coronavirus.)

After the world closed down, days passed, then weeks, then a month, then two… but we noticed that, rather than becoming irrelevant, those same questions have become more acute.

In this peculiar season, who are we?

How do we most faithfully embody love for one another and our community?

How do we learn what it means to seek God and be God’s church in this new place?

And rather than hinder us from spending time with these questions, in an unexpected way, the changes of this season have actually given us an edge. We have a renewed drive to be together and talk about things that matter. We’ve discovered and become comfortable with technology that makes that work easier than ever. And since all of our habits have been disrupted, we’re riding on the energy of new approaches and new beginnings. As we face what it means to settle in and plant a garden in this COVID-19 world, things are actually lined up pretty well to go about this work, and it starts with tonight’s celebration.

Tonight is the first step in paying attention to who we have been, so that we can more clearly see who we are becoming and who we can be now. At 5:30, everyone is invited to log on to a church-wide Zoom call, where we will split into groups and connect over stories about the times we’ve felt most alive at Northminster, times we’ve been the proudest, and times we’ve been sorry. Coming back together, we’ll all take a look at what kinds of stories, themes, and values come up to the surface.

Then, next weekend, the Coordinating Council is going to get together over Zoom to talk about what we heard. How do those stories and themes inform how we see ourselves? How can we make that explicit? What do they say about why we exist? Because a community with a why to live for can bear almost any how.[3]

Then, over the following two weeks, we’re asking every commission to meet and have a similar conversation. In the why of Northminster right now, what is your how? What are the implications for education, for missions, for community? For how we use our property? For how we approach arts and hospitality, worship and stewardship?

All the while, I’ll be conducting a series of interviews with congregants about their experiences of God and of Northminster, releasing those week by week, and it is our hope that all of it, together, opens our eyes to who we are right now, to what is ours to do, and where we’re going from here.

It’s our hope that, through awareness and grace and flexibility, we’ll learn to keep living this story, co-written with the Spirit of Love in this new place and new time. It’s our hope that this will clarify what gardens we’re being invited to plant and what houses we’re being invited to built.

Jeremiah ends this section by writing in God’s voice, saying “I know my purpose for you. Even in the midst of all this grief and disruption, my purpose is for your wellbeing, not your harm. My purpose is to give you hope, to give you a future. When you learn to seek me wholeheartedly in this new place, you will you find me, and your fortunes will be restored in a way you couldn’t have imagined.”

People of God, there’s no avoiding this and no speeding through it, so let’s settle in. Let’s build a house and plant a garden in this new land. Let’s learn to find ourselves in this place. Let’s learn to find God here, and as we do, we’ll find our wellbeing again.

I’m so grateful to be here, with all of you, while this is happening.

I know we can build something beautiful.

Amen.

[1] If you want to read the whole, dramatic saga, check out Jeremiah 28-29 in your next morning quiet time. [2] The Daily, April 20, 2020, “The Next Year (Or Two) of the Pandemic,” https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-next-year-or-two-of-the-pandemic/id1200361736?i=1000472047223. Much of the following dialogue is verbatim, but some words have been adjusted to help with narrative flow. [3] “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

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