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Seeking shalom in a strange land | Coming of Age
Text: Jeremiah 29:1-14
Speaker: Joel Miller
Disoriented. Unsettled. Uprooted. Displaced. Exile.
These are some of the words we might use to describe what these past two years have felt like. The pandemic years. Even if we personally feel a little more settled these days, our society is still feeling the effects. In our schools. In the workforce. In the economy. In our politics. Now a war in Ukraine makes it feel all the more uneasy.
Uprooted, Displaced, Exile.
These are some of the words that describe the people on the receiving end of a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is writing from Jerusalem, and his letter is going all the way over to Babylon, in the East, where his fellow Judeans have been exiled. The life they knew was over – their king dethroned, their temple destroyed, their land conquered, their houses flattened.
And the life they were currently living in Babylon had no clear direction. Was this temporary or long term? Could this actually be their new home, or should they be striving to return to what used to be home? And who should they listen to to give them guidance?
Disoriented. Unsettled. Uprooted.
These are words we use when we are going through a significant life transition. Like moving away from home for the first time. Like retirement, or getting married or divorced. Like losing a beloved pet. Like falling in or out of love.
And…this universal human experience of transitioning from childhood to…something else. Different cultures have different ways of marking this transition and different understandings of what comes after childhood. We call it adolescence - that time in life when one is no longer a child but is not yet an adult. Unlike other cultures we don’t have very clear ways of marking this transition, and the lines are pretty fuzzy of when one era ends and the other begins.
Although when we were meeting to prepare for today you all seemed to agree that thirteen was a pretty significant threshold. The teenage years.
Whether you just turned 13 – Mateo – or will do so in the coming year – the rest of you – we as a congregation hold this Coming of Age celebration as a way of marking this important life transition you are undergoing, and welcoming you into this new stage of life.
Now…Disorientation, Uprooted, Exile…these aren’t exactly words of celebration. And this isn’t necessarily everyone’s experience of adolescence. But let’s be truthful. Growing up isn’t easy. Even if our early years are full of love in a safe, nurturing environment with a strong sense of home, we are soon met with the task of leaving that very home. It’s a long process. One that starts well before physically leaving home. And one that continues throughout life, even if one physically moves back to, or never actually leaves, the place one grew up, surrounded by the same people.
Leaving home, expanding one’s world beyond immediate family, finding one’s selfhood beyond just the circumstances one has been born into, This is a lifelong journey. And it’s not really optional.
There are similar dynamics present with the exiled community in Babylon. Without their own choosing, they have left home. They were forcefully removed. The familiar hillsides where they played as children, the weave of streets and alleyways between houses they had memorized, the smells that indicated the seasons of the year, or the time of day, who was preparing what food for dinner, the familiar plant and bird species, the sounds -- all these are gone too.
Home is far, far away. And the thought of home, the longing for home fills their hearts. It is ever present in their memories, in their words.
When you’re far away, it’s nice to get a letter from home.
And this is not just any ordinary letter. It’s a letter from the prophet Jeremiah. Perhaps delivered on the fastest camel from Jerusalem. C-mail. Camel mail is way faster than snail mail.
And like other writings of the prophets, Jeremiah is not just speaking for himself. He speaks for God. “Thus says the Lord of hosts,” it begins, a phrase repeated throughout the letter.
So basically, it’s a letter from God, with instructions on how to live in this strange new land of exile. It sure would have been nice to have gotten one of those when I was 13.
When we met to do a Bible study of this letter, you had some good observations of what those instructions were for the exiles. It’s in pretty plain language there in the letter. Build houses and live in them. OK. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. And, in so many words, get married and have children. This means something very important for these people.
It speaks to one of the key questions they were asking. Are we going back home soon, or should we try to make this new place home? It’s a clear No to that first part. And a clear Yes to the second part. You don’t start building a house if you plan to move in a few months. You don’t plant a garden in the spring if you don’t plan to be around in the fall for harvest. And if you start having children, it means pretty soon, this place that feels so far from home for you, is going to be the only home these children have ever known.
I strongly encourage you to delay the last piece of advice about having children. And I encourage you to feel no pressure to ever have to have children. And it might take a while before you’re interested in building a house.
But you are building something. Even though you’re still living in your parent’s house you’re starting to build the house you’ll live in the rest of your life. Your life is the house you’ll live in. And there are key parts of that house that only you can build. You don’t have to have your whole garden planned out, but it’s a great time of life to plant seeds of all kinds. Think new thoughts, explore your interests and try something that might not initially seem interesting. See if it goes anywhere. If it doesn’t, it will compost back into the ground and be fertilizer for the next thing you plant. Plant seeds of friendship.
What Jeremiah is trying to say is that this isn’t just a blip that will go away in a bit and everything will go back to the way it was before. There’s no going back. Rather than just looking backwards on the past, or just looking ahead and guessing about the future, Jeremiah invites the exiles to invest in the present, where they are, even if where they are is unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
He has a great word he uses for this. Shalom. If you’re going to learn just one Hebrew word, this would be a good one. It’s one of those words that’s so good that we have to use multiple words in our language to understand what it means. Shalom speaks to a broad sense of wellbeing. It can be translated as peace, justice, wellbeing, or welfare. As in Jeremiah’s words, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…for in its welfare – in its peace, its wellbeing, in its shalom – is your shalom.
It’s a good word to summarize Jesus’ teachings.
We talked about this word together and what it might mean to seek the shalom of this city where you live. This is something you’re already doing. You mentioned things like composting food scraps which get used in neighborhood gardens. Shoveling snow for neighbor’s sidewalks. You mentioned giving money to homeless folks outside a Bengal’s football game. Which technically is a different city, but there were a whole lot more Columbus people claiming Cincinnati as a favorite second city very recently for some reason. Maybe next year.
One of the things I love about this congregation is I look out on all the faces and think about all the ways people are contributing to the wellbeing of our city, whether it be planting gardens in their yards and sharing produce with neighbors or being leaders in organizations that help our city thrive.
For Jeremiah, Jerusalem, the homeland, wasn’t the only city that counted. Even Babylon, with all its problems, was a place for God’s shalom.
Each of you have much to give in contributing to the shalom of this city. And if you ever move to another city, or a place that isn’t a city at all, you’ll find lots of opportunities to be part of God’s shalom there too.
I want to end by saying two more things.
Here’s the first: In Jeremiah’s letter he mentions other prophets who are also speaking to them in the name of the Lord. Don’t listen to them, Jeremiah says. They are telling you lies. In the chapter right before this one we get a play by play account of Jeremiah’s conflict with one of those other prophets, named Hananiah, who was preaching that the exile was going to be over soon and people should get ready to come back to Jerusalem.
In other words, this letter from Jeremiah came to them like a letter from God, but there were very likely other letters where the writers claimed to be speaking for God, and saying the exact opposite thing. It turns out this as not as clear cut as it may appear, and it turns out you can’t take someone for their word just because they claim to be speaking for God.
There are still lots of people claiming to speak for God, or, if they don’t use God’s name, claiming to have the answer or the solution or the best thing for your life. Now this is really not in my self-interest to be saying this because that means you shouldn’t believe everything you hear in church just because it gets said in church. Part of coming of age means that you test ideas for yourself along with a trusted circle of people who you know are looking out for your shalom. That’s what we try to be as a congregation, but we’re all just kind of trying to figure it out as we go along.
That’s the first thing. And here’s the second and final thing in closing.
A couple months ago I got a card from a member of this congregation that I still have because I like to look at the quote every once in a while. It says “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”
“The creative adult is the child who has survived.”
A big part of being an adolescent is leaving childhood. It’s a journey we all go on whether we want to or not. But, childhood holds a homeland within us that always stays with us if we let it. You have within you a playful, creative, unburdened, joyful part of yourself that is your birthright as a human being. As we grow up and take on more responsibilities we can sometimes forget about that part of us. We can be so busy seeking the shalom of the city that we forget about the vibrant peaceful core within ourselves, that inner child.
You are coming of age and you are starting to build your home and plant your garden and someday you may have children of your own, all things Jeremiah names in his letter. But don’t forget about the child within you that loves to create and play and be carefree. And don’t just take my word for it. Think about the adults you admire most, the ones who create Shalom just by being themselves, and think about how they still have that piece of home and childhood within them.
Shalom to you.