Sermon For Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

“Taking Root In The Most Unexpected Places”


“Bloom Where You Are Planted, Even If It’s In The Compost Heap!”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Blog: ~ Twitter: @FranklinCircle

If The Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land could be compared to the Revolutionary War freeing the American people from the tyranny of British oppression, and if the division of the Northern Kingdom of Israel from the Southern Kingdom of Judah following the death of Solomon, might be compared to the Civil War of the United States, then surely the Exile into Babylon could be compared to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

Jewish Prisoners During the Babylonian Captivity, Iraq Museum International

Jewish Prisoners During the Babylonian Captivity, Iraq Museum International

I make this dramatic comparison because in both the exile of the top echelon of Israelite politics and society to the foreign land of Babylon in the three deportations in 597 BCE, 587 BCE, and 582 BCE shook the Jewish people to their core and, for the first time in many, many decades and perhaps centuries, shattered their sense of invincibility and perceptions of superiority in the world.  Likewise, I think it can be reasonably argued that the events of 9/11 shook the American people and forever changed how we see ourselves as a superpower in a world where a handful of terrorists could not only bring down two of the most iconic buildings of our American experience, but force us to invest billions of dollars in security in everything from building design to the number of ounces of liquid we can carry on a plane.

But after I came up with this comparison – that the Babylonian exile is akin to 9/11 – I reread today’s words from the prophet Jeremiah, which is set smack dab in the midst of this monumental exile, and began to think of other events in American history that might be more closely and honestly comparative.  The most dramatic would be the slave trade that forcibly brought thousands of human beings from their homelands in Africa to places around the world, but most notably to the shores of America.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, MI; photo by Allen V. Harris

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, MI; photo by Allen V. Harris

Just last weekend Craig and I, while on vacation, visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, one of several sterling museums in the cultural district of Detroit, Michigan. (1)  In it we saw depicted, in some of the most visually stunning and emotionally horrifying ways, the human suffering and degradation of the slave trade, from the intertribal warfare it caused in Africa, to the horror of the sea voyage, to the shame of how we treated our sisters and brothers for generations in the country we call the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Perhaps this American experience is more akin to that of the exile of Israel into Babylon.

Slave Ship display at the Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI

Slave Ship display at the Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI

Or, perhaps, we might recall the dreadfulness of America’s treatment of the indigenous peoples of this land.  From trickery and mischievousness, to all out wars on peoples for possession of the lands their ancestors had inhabited for generations, to obligatory classes to “civilize” their children, to the forced relocation of hundreds and thousands of individuals and tribes from their familiar and often resource-rich lands to some of the poorest quality and most desolate lands we called reservations, one might make the case that this tawdry aspect of American history might more readily parallel the deportations of so many Israelites in wave after wave of military occupation. (2)

In any one of these associations – 9/11, the slave trade, or the treatment of Native Americans – the words of Jeremiah are equally confrontational and perplexing:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

800px-Trail_of_tears_map_NPSIt would be as if someone would have said to the African slaves after they were branded and sold to the highest bidder: find a way to make a life for yourself in the midst of this unspeakable tragedy.  It would be as if someone would have said to the members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations from their homelands to Indian Territory in Oklahoma to find a way to make a life for yourselves in the midst of this brutal atrocity.  It would be as if someone said to the American people after having watched in unspeakable incredulity two planes hitting two towers, and then witness two of the tallest buildings in the world collapsing in a maelstrom of fire, ash, and silence to somehow, someway, go on and live life to the fullest.

Well, of course, the strength of the human will in fact did allow the African slaves, the indigenous tribes, and the American people to continue to live as best we could, with dignity and hope and perseverance, in lands we did not choose and under circumstances we would never before have imagined.  Just as the

Detroit skyline

Detroit skyline

Israelites did in the land of their captors: they lived life to the fullest.  One of the most exquisite parts of the Museum of African American History is the recreation of Main Street, USA – perhaps an amalgam of locations around Detroit – to show how African Americans have taken what one could easily call a fatal blow and created joy, prosperity, hope, and excellence for themselves and America as a whole.  From the classic barbershop with the clients and stylists conversing about ball teams and politics, to the record store with song after song that define the America we know today, to the law office, the doctors office, and many other “shops” that show, quite clearly, that while not perfectly nor completely, our African American brothers and sisters have built houses and lived in them, planted gardens and eaten what they produces, and married and had children.  So many who have been enslaved or exiled have found a way to thrive!

The challenge is clear from Jeremiah’s words to the human experience exemplified in those who have been in exile in this nation in one way, shape, or form that all of us should find ways to make the best of the circumstances of our lives.  This is not a call to complacency in the face of injustice – Jeremiah would be the first to call us to hold our leaders to accountability for the evil they are quite capable of doing.  Rather, this is an honest assessment that life goes on, and to delay life in the face of difficulties is to do a disservice to God and to ourselves.

How many times have we thrown up our hands at the way things are in our lives and been tempted to despair so much that we would give up?  My parents didn’t treat me the way I ought to have been treated!  I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks (or the river) and that’s ruined my chances for the future!  My school had the worst teachers!  My boss is the meanest!  My spouse is lazy!  My neighborhood’s a mess!  The saying is pointed and revealing: The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence!

GrassbyAllenVHarrisJeremiah, and in so many ways the Jesus we follow today, reminded us that as pretty as that grass in someone else’s back yard might be, we are called to bloom where we are planted.  The grass may be greener on the other side, but you’re standing on your grass. Water it!!!  That manure that has been dumped on you by an employer, a lover, a son or daughter, society, the government, the church, whoever… that manure might just be exactly what you need to make your garden grow, and grow quite lovely I might add!

Do I make lightly of the barbarity of slavery or the cruelties of forced deportation?  No.  They are injustices we must fight with all our being!  Do I ignore the wretched existence of refugee people all around the world at this very moment in history, and before us and after us?  No.  We must work to improve the plight of all of God’s children, especially those exiled from their homes.  But what Jeremiah calls us to is a deep personal sense that we must not, cannot let our spirits be defined by our circumstances.  As children of the Living God, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” and thus we have the power to define life in this moment in faith as grace, as hope, as love.  And then bloom like we believe it!


(1) To learn more about the Wright Museum, go online to:

(2) To learn more about the Trail of Tears and other indigenous relocations go online to: