Preached at Family of Christ PC(USA), Greeley, Colorado October 9, 2016
Text: Jeremiah 29 1,4-7
Jeremiah can be rough, he had so much bad stuff left over when he finished his eponymous book, that he was able to write another called Lamentation. He was generally not a very happy guy. And not just that, he can be pretty cryptic and dense in his imagery, to the point where you start to wonder what in the world he’s talking about
But here, today, he sets all that aside and gives his people and us a bit of a break in these words from God.
With the Exile to Babylon, the people of Israel had to deal not just with military defeat, economic hardship and physical displacement. For them this was also an existential and theological crisis.
Their entire world view, for generation after generation, was based around the idea that they were the chosen people of the one true God. The God that was greater than all other gods. And they had known that that supreme God lived with them right there in the temple in Jerusalem.
But now, that God had been defeated. The temple had been sacked and God’s people were enslaved and hauled away from the land that had been promised to them.
And that’s the context in which Jeremiah is writing. Most of the prophets, and in a lot of ways, most of the rest of the Old Testament, the job was to explain how this horrible thing had happened. The writers tend to fall into two schools. Some say “It was your leaders who were bad and that’s why God has left you.” The others say “Yeah. All y’all were awful. Did you really think you didn’t deserve this?” Jeremiah tends to fall in the second camp.
But there was a second job for Jeremiah and the rest of the exilic prophets, especially Second Isaiah and Ezekiel. That was to prepare the people to get past the immediate crisis and to prepare them to survive both during their banishment and in the promised future where they would be able to return to the promised land.
Jeremiah’s word today is, basically, “Looks guys, you’re here now. What’s done is done, stop worrying about yesterday, you have to get through today. So stop complaining and get to work on building the rest of your life.”
It was a few months ago when Nate asked me to preach this Sunday. Once I had agreed, I went and looked up the texts for today in the Revised Common Lectionary and the Jeremiah text jumped right out at me.
Here was a text that would be fun to preach! Here was an opportunity to speak agains one of my pet peeves, today’s culture of complaint.
A lot of people see it as an artifact of the internet, and sure, the ‘net gives people a platform for their whining and complaining, but it doesn’t create the underlying mindset that drives it.
When I talk about this culture of complaint, I’m not talking about speaking out against injustice or fighting against people or structures that have hurt you.
What I’m thinking of are the kind of complaints exemplified by the Simpsons character “Comic Book Guy.” Comic book guy is famous for his catchphrase, “Worst episode ever,” or “Worst issue ever,” or “Worst whatever ever.”
There’s an exchange in an episode of the eighth season of the Simpsons that exemplifies his thinking. In it Bart questions his incessant complaining:
Comic Book Guy: Last night's Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured I was on the Internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.
Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?
Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart: For what? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.
Comic Book Guy: ...Worst episode ever.
There’s a simple pleasure in complaining about things that way. Especially where you can do it anonymously and without ever having to face the people you’re complaining about.
It’s more than just venting, tearing other people’s creative work down can give you a feeling of power, of superiority, even, to a certain extent, accomplishment.
But it takes no real effort at all. It’s a cheap high, on that can be quite addictive if you let it.
This kind of complaining on the internet has been around since the very beginning. It was there on the message boards of the UseNet. It’s one of the many kinds of behavior that get placed under the umbrella of “trolling”.
The classic troll is out to derail conversations and to get reactions. They will say whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. The complainer is just one flavor, along with others like the concern troll and the grammar nazi.
For a long time, trolls were just an annoyance, and people developed strategies to deal with them. People learned the importance of not feeding the trolls. And many creative people know deep in their heart that they should never, ever read the comments.
In recent years, however, there has been a growing trend where instead of being relatively harmless, if annoying disruptors of conversation, groups of trolls have begun to rise up with tangible real life consequences.
The two that I’m most familiar with are Gamer Gate and the Sad Puppies. Both groups are made up almost exclusively of straight, white men who feel that their beloved passions, video games for Gamer Gate and science fiction for the Puppies, have been stolen away from them by the evil purveyors of such dark ideas as inclusivity and equality.
The lash out against those evil people, dubbing them SJWs, or Social Justice Warriors.
Annnnd. . . you can tell that I get very worked up about them and I wanted so very much to use this text to rant about those people, those children of God.
But that rant is not a sermon. It’s just an opportunity for me to spout off about things I don’t like to rave about those people over there, always complaining about things and people they don’t like.
Do you see why that might be problematic? Writing a sermon complaining about the way people I don’t like complain about people they don’t like?
Sure, it’s super meta, but it’s also super hypocritical.
It would accomplish nothing but make me exactly what I was complaining about. I would be a troll, and it would be, to coin a phrase, the Worst.Sermon.Ever.
So where to go?
The text had become a trap for me. But the first step in avoiding trap is to know it’s there.
From a homiletics perspective that means, go back to the text.
As I said at the beginning, Jeremiah is hard folks. I think it’s fair to say that if you think you’ve found an easy answer in Jeremiah, your wrong. And boy was I wrong.
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.
My first, and biggest problem was thinking that Jeremiah was writing to those folks over there. You know, those guys, not me. Definitely not me, I mean I’m not in exile, am I?
Anna Carter Florence, my preaching professor, taught us a technique for analyzing a text: look at the verbs. Just the verbs.
For today, they are:
Sent, taken, says, build, live, plant, eat, take, have, give, bear, multiply, seek, sent, pray, find.
Listen to just the middle group again. Let them roll over you:
Build, live, plant, eat, take, have, give.
Jeremiah must have seen that the people in exile were stuck in their grief, stuck in their confusion, stuck in their anger, and they were not doing those things.
They were not building their lives, not living in the fullness that God desires all of humanity to live into, planting, growing, eating, taking and giving.
The temptation for the preacher is to put ourselves in the place of the prophet and not in the place of the people they were reaching out to.
I think that’s called hubris.
What I needed to ask was not, “Where do I see people behaving like the people that Jeremiah was talking about?”
What I needed to ask was, “Where am I behaving like the people Jeremiah was talking about?”
Where am I not building, living, planting?
In short, where am I in exile?
And I thought just figuring out what Jeremiah had to say was hard.
Where am I in exile? Well, actually, this are going pretty well, but. . .
Where am I in exile? I’ve got a good job. I have great friends and a strong community, but. . .
Where am I in exile? Why do I feel like I’m not building, not planting, not living?
Like the exiles in Babylon, I’m spending too much time looking to my past.
For them they were thinking about how good they had it back in the day. Last year in the holy land, last year in Jerusalem.
For me, I look at how good things are today, and things today are, in a lot of ways I’m having the best days of my life.
But I look at how good things are and rather than rejoice, rather than enjoy, I get angry and depressed about how much I missed out on in the first 40 or 50 years of my life.
How my own inability to accept myself as I am, combined with society and culture’s pressure on me to not be who I am forced me to pull away, to hide from life and from others, to miss so much.
Somebody once wrote about being trans that “We mourn the loss of our childhood as ourselves.” And boy have I mourned, mourned not just for a childhood not lived, but for 20s not lived and for 30s not lived.
Jeremiah’s text today was a meant to be a big old dope slap to the people of Israel who had stopped living, to get them to look forward and not back.
And it’s a big slap upside my head to stop looking back at what I may have missed and to start living in today and looking to the future.
So, now I get to ask you, as preacher’s prerogative, where are you in exile?
What are the things that are keeping you from building, living, growing, having and giving?
Pain is real. The hurts and traumas of the past live on into today and the future, and we can’t just turn them off. Unlike what a certain presidential candidate said recently, strength will not save you from PTSD or loss.
But God, through Jeremiah is calling you, calling me, calling all of us not to live there.
Exile is real. But, as people of faith we are called to believe that the joyful triumphant return is just as real. We may not be able to see it, but Jeremiah and God want us to live in that reality. The reality that the Kingdom of God is at hand
Build, live, plant, eat, take, have, give.
The Lord says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile, and pry to the Lord on its behalf. For in its welfare, you will find your welfare.”
Here you are. Now is where you live. Yes, you are exiled from where you were, where you maybe should have been, and the only way back there is through building and living now.
Build, live, plant, eat, take, have, give. And one more, trust.