Plant, Build, Encourage
October 13, 2019
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley
This letter was written to all those in exile from Jerusalem. They had been defeated, devastated and forced 500 miles from home. As the Psalmist lamented, By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept. (Psalm 137:1)
Jerusalem had been the promised land and God had lived in the Temple. “So, where was God?” they wondered. And they had been God’s chosen people. “So, who were they now? How could they go on in a strange land where their enemies gloated over them?”
And there, by the rivers of Babylon the prophet Jeremiah’s letter found them. And to these people who wondered if even God had been destroyed, somehow, someway, the Holy Word came. “I will come to you in the silence . . . Do not be afraid, I am with you.”[i]
Most of us have not known the experience of exile, but many of us have known defeat and loss, and felt institutions we stood on crack or even tumble. Some of us have been forced away from beloved places, and into painful situations in which we felt foreign and powerless. We have laid down our harps in lament, unable to sing. I heard someone say recently that he feels like an exile in his own country. I have heard another of you ask, “Where is God?”
When I think of exiles, I also remember the experience of African slaves in America. Imani Perry wrote recently to her 2 black sons,
Mothers like me once had no recourse, no power to hold off the lash, to hold on indefinitely, to fight back when they crushed your heart and life. I think, back then, I would’ve been like Frederick Douglass’s mother: I would’ve bared one of my scars, like the one on my knee . . . and told you to remember me by it; in the crowd of endless labor, to know me by it. And if I didn’t have a landmark on my flesh, I would’ve made one for you, carved it into my right arm, a knifed X for your mother.[ii]
Imani Perry trusted the strength of her love, even the powers sought to eradicate it, would find a way somehow to reveal.
Imani Perry continued,
In the Catholic tradition, there is a form of grace, the sanctifying one, that is the stuff of your soul. It is not defined by moments of mercy or opportunity; it is not good things happening to you. Rather, it is the good thing that is in you, regardless of what happens. You carry this down through generations, same as the epigenetic trauma of a violent slave-master society. But the grace is the bigger part. It is what made the ancestors hold on so that we could become.[iii]
And in that letter to the exiles were directions: build and live; plant and eat; marry and have children and grandchildren; seek, pray, find the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile and in it you will find your welfare. Building houses moves one into- planning, creating spaces, and gathering. Planting involves digging in the dirt, watering, and harvesting food to share. Marrying and having children and grandchildren draws us intimately into nurture and covenant, delight and heartache, and the miracles of birth and growth and support in suffering. In seeking the welfare of the ‘other’ in the city in which you are exiled, you will find your own. These are practices—that everyone can participate in—young and old, men and women, gay and straight. In the threat of total desolation– draw on the power of life, draw on love, draw on that grace within you from the Holy One—that has been passed on from generation to generation. Grace is bigger than trauma. In Imani Perry’s words, “It is what made the ancestors hold on so that we could become.”[iv]
Five and a half years ago, my father was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, to which there is no cure. Treatments have given him more time and eased pain. Every few months we return to the oncologist who asks Dad how he’s feeling and what his questions might be. And quite often Dad has asked, ‘Yes, I was wondering if I could plant a garden.” To which the doctor would always shake his head affirmatively. And as he gradually grew weaker, Dad hired Jose, a gardener, to do more, and together they have fed both families and mine, and the neighbors. And when Jose’s wife ended up in a detention center, and when Dad grew weaker still, they helped each other more.
“Any other questions?” asks the oncologist.
“Yes, do you think I can preach again?”
She paused and thoughtfully responded, “I think you have to. I don’t think you can’t.” Dad’s passion is to proclaim that God is loving, and that God is present and active, even in the darkest night. And as he became weaker, a friend or family stood by when he preached, in case he needed support. And now in this season, he encourages gardeners and preachers. In days with little energy he feels better, he says, when he can mail a few notes of gratitude and affirmation to build people up. He beamed when I found him this week in the hospital parking lot, having just been to the post office to send two birthday cards to old friends telling them how much they mean, and handing me envelopes for my kids with notes valuing their participation and money to support the CROP walk. In a way, these letters are his seeds now, sent through the air, to take root and grow and multiply. They are his proclamations of love and grace, regardless of what happens.
After graduating from college, Ron Dorr spent time living in Colombia, where he was moved by extreme hunger, and suffering, that he saw. In graduate school, back in the U.S. during the 1960’s he joined in civil rights and anti-war movements. Many times, he was called names and mocked. Once on a march with a group they stopped to pray, and he could hear a truck driver shout, “Run them over. Run them all over.” With assassinations of key American leaders, he grew sour and pessimistic about the country. Overwhelmed and discouraged, he withdrew.
In 1979, Rev. Dave Henderson of Westminster Presbyterian Church asked Ron if he’d walk in the CROP Walk to raise money to alleviate local and world hunger through Church World Service. CROP money supports food banks, community gardens, access to water—and other initiatives that improve and save lives. For Ron, the CROP Walk brought together his desire to make a difference, his background as a farm kid, and his athletic nature. In 1979, Ron and his young son Ben were the first two from our church to participate in the CROP Walk. The tone was very different than his earlier marches. He saw people of all ages, strangers and friends, enjoyed walking, resting, sharing snacks and enjoying each other. Ron came back to church and began to recruit. By his 4th year 47 walkers from our church participated. Now our whole church cherishes the positive and inclusive spirit. Ron thinks the youngest from our church was six weeks, unless he counts a baby of someone who walked when she was pregnant. Among the most memorable of our older members to him was Sis Fritze who wanted to raise $900 on her 90th birthday with $10 contributions. When she exceeded this goal, her delight radiated for years. With Ron’s encouragement, our church has recently been among the top 10 or 12 givers in the nation, and in 40 years this church has raised $325,865.76 to alleviate hunger. Each year Ron reminds us of the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.” And now we bless Ron’s retirement as our lead recruiter. Thank you for helping us to become.
What are we to do when so much seems wrong, and we are tempted to feel helpless? Remember what we are to do with temptation. Remember the directions to the exiles. In the midst of threat, draw deeply from the Source of Love and Life. Plant, build, encourage. Send love, pray with your feet, trust grace. In the name of the Resurrected One who says, “Fear not, I am with you.” Amen.
[i] David Haas, I Will Come to You,” Glory to God Hymnal, 177.
[ii] Excerpt from Breathe, by Imani Perry read during Krista Tippett’s interview with Imani Perry, OnBeing, “More Beautiful,” September 26, 2019, https://onbeing.org/programs/imani-perry-more-beautiful/