Go, Settle (Jeremiah 29:4-14)

Joan MacPherson, November 26, 2017
Part of the Sunday series, preached at a Sunday Morning service

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Go, Settle
(Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14)
We were at the playground, my 2 1/2 year old great niece Linnie, her dad and I. After the requisite climbing, swinging, running we moved over to the sunken sandbox. Brian and I sat on the side at a corner and Linnie got to work rearranging the sand (preparing to build in Haiti in a few years I am sure). It is quite a large sand box maybe 10 by 10. Before long a little boy about 4 wandered over and stepped down into the sand. He found a red plastic shovel and he began his own digging and building. It didn’t take long before he moved closer to us. He was still actively at work with the sand as was Linnie. She was working pretty close to our knees and we were rather compact in a corner of the sandbox. There was a lot of room where we weren’t. The boy started working on something like a tunnel or path and he was excavating toward us. Then his work moved him into Linnie’s personal space (or so I judged). There was a whole huge sand box why was he intruding into her area? It’s as if he could read the bubble over my head and my protective, introverted, name your character flaw thinking. Without stopping his work he simply declared, “I need more territory”.
Being the great aunt and the visitor to the neighborhood I realized that I should keep my mouth shut but that didn’t stop my head from working over time. From the freedom and creativity of the sand box I jumped to the flaws of human nature - always wanting more, taking advantage of the younger, was this little boy giving evidence to some innate gender differences? I can’t even remember what/if anything happened. I do remember that I went away musing about “I need more territory” - that he had territory in his vocabulary and how often humans insert themselves into other peoples space because they want more territory, and how this has caused so many problems through time and when will we ever learn?
How quick I was to get defensive and protective when a 4 year old with a red shovel got into “our” territory. How quick I was to let fear shape my response. How quick I was to assume that he was approaching with his self interest in mind and without any interest in connecting with the other child in the sand box. How quick I was to set up a barrier to keep him away from what we were doing. I am the childless great aunt. I haven’t spent years developing the mama bear protective muscles. Even without that history I was quick to think stop, don’t get in her way, let her have her space and your approaching us in encroaching on her territory. There is a huge sand box out there that you can claim as your needed territory. Why us? Why our little section?
The conversation has stayed with me. “I need more territory”. Really 4 year old boy? You already are conditioned to be taking over? Expanding your realm into that of another? We have a lot of work to do don’t we? If the world is going to be any different. If we are going to stop what seems to be endless cycles of war and conquering. We need to help shift the actions and instincts of 4 year old boys from acting on their desire for more territory and intruding on the play time of my great niece. I better get going and help shift those mind sets and encourage other ways of acting and being that are more conducive to building a beloved community, open hearts, gratitude, generosity and looking out for the welfare of others. I better do something to help them change what they are doing.
Then I began reflecting on the reading from Jeremiah for this week and there was a shift - a shift that was simultaneously life giving and a painful reminder of my imperfect humanity. I had totally assumed that this boy’s declaration for more territory was about taking something from me (or Linnie). I had assumed that his getting close to me was going to hurt me somehow. I erected walls and barriers and thought about how to keep him away and how to change his behavior so that the world could be a better place. What if it wasn’t him that needed to change but me? Maybe this boy wasn’t coming to invade our space, maybe he was coming to offer us something. Maybe he saw our metaphorical walls of self protection and self interest and he was coming to us to show us a different way, a more open way, a more communal and compassionate way. Maybe he was the little child leading us and he was all set to expand a territory of love, justice, welcome, hope. Maybe it wasn’t that I needed to get going to figure out ways to change him but that it is me that needs to change. That it is me that can change from deciding he is a threat to looking for life and love in his presence, in his words, in his actions. Maybe I can switch from seeing his sand tunnel as an intrusion into our space and instead see his labor making a way for love to flow into our closed off area. Maybe it isn’t about changing him, it is about changing me - and in my changing I open more to God’s promise and love and in doing so the ever present Holy seeds of life, hope and love are watered and prepared to blossom?
Is this what Jeremiah is saying in or sacred story? His people are a tiny population of foreign Babylon. His people, faithful Jews, have been exiled from their home land and displaced into a territory of other - other religion, other politics, other ethnicity, other tradition. All around them are people that do things differently. All around them are threats to the traditional practice of their religion and their Jewish piety. All around them are people whose government has literally taken more territory (quite literally what had been their homeland, their territory). In that wasteland and oppressive situation how natural it would be to retreat, build walls, glare out in anger and fear at those who need more territory, a far more consequential situation then the 4 year old with a red plastic shovel in a sandbox. Everything instinctive says stay away.
Jeremiah knows how humans are, he is one after all. Jeremiah also trusts in God and has opened his ears to hear the peculiar, life giving words of God. He speaks to those that are trembling, that are displaced, that are scared of the environment around them, that are fearful of what is to come. This is what he tells them - “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, take wives and have sons and daughters…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare….For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” In the midst of the pain, in the fragility of the present, in the reality of oppression do things of life and trust the presence and power of God to sustain, create and transform. Be alive. Be compassionate. Be about co-creating in the way and will of God. Don’t use all your energy crying foul and labeling what’s wrong, get about bearing fruit and opening to God and settling in to be alive, to be compassion, to be hope in what is.
Jeremiah can say all this because he is certain about God and God’s promises. His complete trust in God enables hims to speak life and act for life in really challenging times. I am not consistently as bold as Jeremiah. I falter. I stumble. I see a 4 year old boy and get defensive. I give thanks that the transforming love of God is active at all times not just when I have it together. It is offered to us. There for us. Moving in the world all around us. Followers of Jesus proclaim the presence of that love and do our best to let it matter. We are infused with the spirit and grounded in our sacred story that says our God is calling us forward. We are always in the presence of God’s grace. Our lives and the world around us are fragile, unpredictable, awesome and violent. Jeremiah invites us, in that reality, to plant our whole selves into the soil, to settle, to dig into the ever present love and compassion and hope and peace of God. To put our roots down into the grace and let it flow into whatever is. To be about life in the midst of it all. To dare to let the fear collide with love. To consider that someone declaring they need more territory might be the life giving presence of God coming to us in another who is offering us wholeness and love. It might be God’s persistence in reaching out and coming close so ready to embrace and live in and with us, if we will receive the wonder. It might be that God is here and beckoning us to settle in the grace, the light, the welcome, the acceptance, the love, the promise that endures in all that is, despite all that is. Settle. Settle. Amen.

Joan MacPherson
Main Street Congregational UCC
November 26, 2017

Note: This manuscript was prepared for oral delivery only.
It contains excerpted material not properly cited.
Please do not redistribute without permission.


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