Home Among Exiles
October 13, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Jeremiah 29:1-7
A short while after my mother’s death I found myself on the phone with Betty Coleman, longtime secretary of Apex Baptist Church in Apex, NC. My mom had cooked the church’s Wednesday night suppers back in the 1970’s and had included several recipes from those years in a cookbook she’d developed for her grandchildren. I’d called to see if the church might want a copy for their archives, but ended up mostly listening to Ms. Coleman as she remembered my mother and what she’d meant to the church community.
All this came back to mind during Wednesday’s Biblical Families class as we discussed Abraham and Sara. For the first time I thought about what Sara must have felt when her husband announced they were leaving home and starting this journey to a new land. Our years in North Carolina, mandated by my father’s employer, were among the hardest in my mother’s life. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, had a PhD from Yale University, worked as a college professor in Boston and felt very much at home among the multi-racial, multi-cultural “East Coast Elite.” Suddenly, without much notice, she found herself a stay at home mom in a North Carolina tobacco town. They really didn’t know what to do with her.
When we left Apex in 1984 my mother never looked back and returned maybe once, yet Betty Coleman still vividly remembered her 30 years later. Remembered her for changing local cuisine through the weekly dinners. Remembered her for teaching the 70 + women’s Sunday School, the only group the church leadership deemed safe from her northern, liberal ideas. Remembered her for working with the local schools to advance curriculum reform. Remembered her for leading the fight to replace the King James Bible with a translation children and older ladies alike could understand.
We can’t always choose where we are. We can’t always choose who we’re with. Sometimes we get stuck someplace – a town, a job, a relationship, a school classroom – where we don’t want to be. Sometimes we have to deal with people – coworkers, neighbors, relatives, family members – we don’t want to deal with. After the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem the Israelites find themselves forcefully resettled over 600 miles away in Baghdad. The men were given jobs in the administration of their conqueror. The children were enrolled in the schools of their conqueror. The Israelites dreamed of home. They dreamed of being anywhere else but where they were.
Into the Israelites’ displacement and despair Jeremiah brings the word of the Lord: “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. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
You are where you are, Jeremiah tells his fellow Israelites. You can either complain or you can go about living a godly life. Flipping through my mom’s recipe collection I’m surprised by the grace. She was never a fan of meatloaf, but there is the beloved pastor’s beloved meatloaf recipe, “perfected” with the addition of a mushroom cream sauce. She always cooked everything fresh, but there is the “can-can” soup recipe served each year by the Lion’s Club at the state fair, with a note letting future generations know its “surprisingly tasty.” Exiled to the older ladies Sunday school class she found community, support, love, babysitters and the secret to perfect poundcake.
God calls us to grow where we’re planted. To serve those among whom we find ourselves. When the Apostle Paul orders slaves to obey their masters doing the will of God from their hearts he’s recognizing reality rather than endorsing slavery. Live life in your trying situation with grace. Obey your master. Recognize your freedom and equality through Christ. Save up to buy your freedom. Work for change. Lift others up along the way.
Treat the annoying co-worker with grace, while trying to get your desk moved. Be a blessing to the home health worker or aid who’s incompetent while still trying to make changes. Get what you can from the teacher you don’t click with. Celebrate our living in the nicest town in America while naming our community’s sins and being an agent of grace – with your neighbors, along Main street, among our kids, among seniors. Slip a Belleria gift certificate in the mailbox of the stressed out family next door. Make time to visit your neighbor who lives alone and doesn’t get out much. Go to the special needs theater production and cheer the kids on. Be patient in the traffic circle. Hire an out of work neighbor to rake your leaves and pay too much. Push our community leaders to live up to their statement “nobody gets left behind in Columbiana.” A little grace goes a long way – even if you’d rather be somewhere else doing something else.
A few days ago I went up to see my friend Claire Meeks at the Masternick Memorial Assisted Living in New Middleton. Claire is Masternick royalty. She propels her wheelchair up and down the halls, greeting staff and fellow residents alike. She’s at every game and activity. When nothing is going on she hangs out by the nursing station or in the hallway or by the front door greeting folks as they come in. She calls herself the Vice President and claims she was given the title by the CEO of Windsor House himself.
If you can pull Claire away from her social activities she’ll tell you how hard it was, after her husband died, to leave her house and move into assisted living. “I was angry,” she’s told me. “I hated everyone and complained about everything.” Her anger made her miserable. She was also making everyone else miserable. Finally she began to pray, asking God to help her be able to live in peace where she was, even though she didn’t like it. “God answered my prayer,” Claire testifies. “Now I love it here. I have peace about it and everyone. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. This is home.”
We can’t always choose where we live, or whom we live among or the circumstances of our lives. But we can choose to live with grace or to live with anger. We can choose to seek the welfare of those around us or to take out our frustrations upon them. When we build, when we plant, when we relate to our neighbors and nurture our families, when we seek the welfare of the place where God has placed us, we find blessing, we find grace.