Amid a national disaster, Jeremiah writes to those unsettled by loss and transition, as Jerusalem was utterly destroyed: “The Lord, our God, proclaims to all those living in exile: Build houses and settle down. Cultivate new gardens and eat the produce. Get married. Have children and look forward to grandchildren. Don’t dwindle away! Promote the welfare of the city, where you live! Pray to the Lord for the city, because your future depends on its welfare.” (adapted Jer. 29)
Jeremiah knows the pain of the moment. The Weeping Prophet writes, “If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people (Jeremiah 9). God says to us, “My eyes well up with tears; I can’t stop weeping—day and night, because my precious daughter, my people, have suffered a crushing blow and are deeply wounded” (14:7). God laments with us. During Lent, we remember Jesus weeping with us in the garden and suffering with us on the cross.
Through tears, Jeremiah prophesied hope. “Build houses. Settle in. Plant gardens. Enjoy new varieties. Create communities, care for children. Dream two generations away. Persist. Do not dwindle away! Promote the welfare of the city. Pray for the city because your future depends on the city’s welfare… The Lord says, I will fulfill my gracious promise to you. I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the Lord.”
At times we may struggle to see God’s presence. Fred Rogers, or Mr. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” We have seen God in the helpers this week. We saw God through tax dollars invested in tornado sirens that roused many of us from our slumber and saved many lives. We saw God in the firefighters’ red lights, police officers’ blue lights, public works’ yellow lights racing to help. We see God in helpers in orange vests riding in bucket trucks to untangle downed lines, raise new poles and string high voltage lines. We see God in neighbors checking on neighbors, and construction workers putting up grey, blue, and green tarps. We see God, as in these early days of rebuilding Hands on Nashville and Gideon’s Army are overwhelmed with folks wanting to help. Yesterday, We saw God in the 97 Belmontors going out to help. Be patient, the needs will linger after the news-cycle shifts. Maybe God is calling you to track and organize Belmont’s volunteer response.
On Thursday, a van load of us headed to Braden Memorial UMC to help Dr. Sheila Peters clean up. We joined with folks from Calvary and Braden UMC sweeping up glass from the pews and carrying fallen bricks to the curb. Around 11am, Braden provided us with lunch and then sent us out into the neighborhood to offer lunch to the neighborhood. For about an hour, Alex, two Carters, Darren and I, pushed around a shopping cart loaded with pizza and subs. Our offerings competed with Edley’s free barbeque, an outdoor biscuit oven, and folks simply bringing food to the workers. We gave away six sub sandwiches. We returned to Braden with 12 oversized biscuits stuffed with delicious jam, bacon, and ham. When the guys told Dr. Peters about our coming back with more food than we left with, she laughed and proclaimed, “Hallelujah, it’s the miracle of loaves and fishes all over again!”
Could it be that God, who created love, created us with that desire to help each other? Did not Jesus tell us that life’s greatest rule is to: love each other in the same ways that we love ourselves? Jeremiah speaks of God’s promise and plan, maybe God’s plan is not a mystery to be discovered! Maybe God’s gracious promise and plan for us is: Love each other. Re-build someone’s home! Help someone feel settled. Remember the children. Plan for the coming generations. Plant gardens. Feed the hungry. Don’t let anyone dwindle away! Promote the welfare of the city. Pray and be an answer to someone’s prayers. Our future depends on it.
And know this: It will take time to rebuild! Be patient. Stand by. Don’t forget. Jeremiah speaks of 70 years. God says, “In seventy years, I will fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back. I know the plans I have in mind for you; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. So re-build each others’ homes! Help others get settled. Remember the children. Feed the hungry. Persist! Promote the welfare of the city. Be an answer to prayer. Our future depends on it.”
Tuesday, I called our own Rev. Pat Barrett to check on her. She spoke of gratitude for only losing shingles and trees. She spoke of gratitude for good neighbors. She laughed and said without electricity she would be forced to live like a monk during Lent, regulated to reading and prayer with daylight and candlelight. When I asked her about her needs, she said, “What I hate is that I can’t get out of the driveway to vote.” In two more calls I offered her a ride to the precinct. When Eric and I knocked on her door unannounced, she spun around to get her jacket and purse, while exclaiming with delight: “Yippie, let’s go vote.” I had to laugh the next day when I heard a national commentator say, “How could people think about voting, when their homes have been damaged?” Pat and her neighbors waited for about an hour and a half to vote. Pat longed and voted for a future filled with hope. With her shingled gone, she promoted the welfare of the city!
Now, promoting the welfare of Babylon was a difficult spiritual ask. You see, it was Babylon that destroyed the Israelites’ homes back in Jerusalem. Babylonians burned down Jerusalem’s temple complex and stole Israel’s human capital as well by carrying the best and brightest to work as civil servant slaves in Persia! How dare God ask us to promote the welfare of the city of our captors? Rebuild in a new place? Plant new gardens. Dream new dreams? Create God’s 70 year infrastructure plan? Promote the welfare of our captors, opponents, and enemies? How dare God remind us that our fate is wrapped up with everyone else’s welfare?
Promoting Babylon’s welfare is God’s call to live inside an everyday practice of forgiveness. Promoting Babylon’s welfare means letting go of generational amenity. Life is better inside forgiveness. Forgiveness unshackles us from old wounds. Jeremiah calls for a change of heart that focuses on rebuilding the future and promoting everyone’s welfare. When we love our neighbors, we create communities filled with greater love.
So knowing the promises and plans God has for us, Let us Re-build houses! Help people feel safe, settled, and secure. Remember the children. Plan infrastructure for the next 70 years. Plant more gardens. Feed more people. Don’t dwindle away! Promote everyone’s welfare. Pray and be an answer to prayer. Look for the helpers. Be a helper God created us to help. Be patient – knowing this may take awhile. God is present with us. God’s plan for us is to love each other. Our future depends on it. Amen.