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A Future with Hope Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-6, 11-14
September 13, 2020 Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
Over the last several months I have had numerous conversations with teenagers, young adults and their parents about the future. We know this age range to be the cohort who is just beginning to come into their own. They are in that time of life when we say to them things like “the world is your oyster, go find your pearl!” It’s these youth that have inspired us with their marches for climate action. They are passionate about indigenous rights and racial justice. They are in that beautiful and often awkward stage where they are considering the jobs they might have and the training and schooling they might undertake to get them. Many of them are making their first forays into relationships.
Spending time with this generation has always given me energy and excitement. Their spirit of adventure and possibility is like a contagion. But not so much this summer. This summer the tenor of my conversations with teens and young adults and their parents has been much more cautious than optimistic. Many of our young people are wondering just what the future holds for them and many of us are wondering right along with them.
This week we sent our children off to school for their first day of kindergarten sporting masks along with their new shoes. Our grade eights have landed in highschool with no locker to put their books in and no cafeteria in which to buy their French fries, two of the most highly anticipated experiences of grade seven students. Instead of moving into dorms and onto campus, many from the graduating class of 2020 have graduated to their parent’s dining room tables where they attend online lectures, if the system doesn’t crash. As for all the students heading off to technical programs, good luck learning how to repair a car online. What are the prospects for the class of 2021? Who knows?
Today’s scripture reading comes to us in the form of a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders, the priests and prophets who had been taken into exile in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in the year 587 BC.
Note the way this passage hints at the utter destruction brought on by that event. Jeremiah addresses the “remaining” elders, suggesting that not everyone survived the journey into exile. It appears to be the seniors of that community who took the hardest hit. Recent archeological evidence from this era suggests that both the urban and rural landscapes were utterly ruined by the Babylonian invasion. It would have taken generations to re-generate.
Jeremiah’s words to the people in exile, particularly to the young people “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” all seem to suggest that there will be no quick recovery from the decimation of life as they once knew it. There will be no quick fix. They are in it for the long haul.
As we launch our fall season at the church and head into what is now the seventh month of our pandemic, as Dr. Bonnie calls it, we are becoming increasingly aware that there will be no quick recovery, no quick fix for our life of exile either. As schools open up, we are being sent back into smaller bubbles. As recreation centers unlock their doors, nightclubs and banquet halls are putting up the shutters. We hope for a vaccine one day and we are beginning to grasp the reality that we too are in this for the long haul.
Who would blame any of us for losing at least some of our hope for the future.
This week I found myself thinking about an experience I had over twenty years ago now. I had booked myself into a 40 day retreat but instead of heading off on that adventure with a feeling of excitement about what the experience might be for me, I found myself feeling a great deal of trepidation. I was certain that, in the silence, when there was no one to confront but myself and God, God would deal harshly with me. I imagined the arduous journey ahead as if it were a mountain to be conquered. One wonders in retrospect why I even signed myself up for what I anticipated would be a gruelling slog.
The problem was that I had such a narrow view of God and how God would treat me in those days, I had no capacity to imagine anything else. It’s what fear and despair can do to us, limit our imaginations. Looking back, I can see now what little understanding I had of God’s grace and love. Because, instead of being a gruelling experience, those beautiful long 40 days ended up being a delightful experience. Over the lengthy arc of those days, I discovered in a deep and abiding way that the hopes and dreams and desires God had for me and my future, were only for my good. I came to that understanding by seeking God in scripture and by reflecting on my life experience and through the observance of the natural world.
So often, when our view is narrow, when we can only see what is immediately in front of us and what is immediately in front of us does not look very good, we lose our capacity to take the long view of life. What the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon who he knew were going to be in their current situation for a good long stretch of time, possibly for generations, was to remember that the future plans that God had for them, and the future plans that God has for us, are actually for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.
At the beginning of the pandemic, back in March, we were able to see the goodness of life in the midst of our struggles because we were constantly holding it up for one another through our singing and pot banging and little painted rocks with their messages of hope. We were so supportive of our front line workers and for the most part, the best of our humanity showed up. As the pandemic wears on, I know that it is becoming harder and harder for many of us to keep our chin up. We’re scared about what the winter will bring, we have seen some of the more unsavoury sides of humanity show up and our planet is continuing to remind us that we neglect and misuse her at our own peril.
So we need visible reminders of the truth that in the long run the plans that God has for us are for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope. As human beings we will continue to be those visible reminders. (I saw it myself most clearly this week in the joy of children and youth returning to school reminding us of our need for human connection and the sheer delight in life that even a pandemic can’t squelch for some of our young ones)
And, for the next 11 weeks, we in this community of faith are also going to be reminded of that truth through our reflections on the natural world. We are going to take our cues from plants and trees to remind us of the patience that is needed to take the long view of life and the beauty that can emerge when we give ourselves over to waiting and trusting in hope to spring forth. In the same way a gardener waits for plants to take root. I wonder if there won’t be something in the process of giving ourselves over to observing growth and hope in the natural world that will allow us to let up a bit on always feeling like we have to be the bearers of hope for one another. Perhaps this is why Jesus so often used nature to explain the realm of God because it helps us to remember it isn’t all up to us alone.
On Thursday of this week, I received an email from my colleague and member of this community of faith, Marianna Harris. On the eve 9/11, 2020 she was reflecting on the eve of 9/11, 2001 and how back then we could not imagine the future that lay ahead of us, in the same way a year ago now we could not have imagined the future through which we are currently living.
By her own admission, the words that came to her in poetic form were bleak. They begin like this:
The day before 9/11, 2001
We could not imagine the future that lay ahead of us.
And yet that future grew out of the seeds we had planted.
The people we were,
The character we had nourished
The values we cherished
Revenge, violence, attack
Were rooted deep within our psyche.
She goes on to reflect on that unsavoury side of humanity that is being exposed in this time that I spoke of briefly earlier and she raises the spectre of the climate emergency so present to us in the lower mainland in these days as smoke wafts over the border reminding us of our connectivity in the same way Covid-19 reminds us. And as she ponders the way this pandemic is a small glimpse into the future, she wonders where we will find the resilience of spirit to live into that future with grace. *
In response to Marianna’s words, I found myself thinking how important it is to choose carefully the seeds we are planting in these days. Because those seeds whether they be seeds of destruction or seeds of a future with hope, are what our young people will be harvesting one day.
And if what plants and trees and Jeremiah and life itself show us, which is that the side that God is working on, is always the side for our good, for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope, to mysteriously bring forth life in places and ways we so often cannot imagine, then I for one want to cast my seeds in God’s garden and trust in the future they will one day bring.
*Rev. Marianna Harris, September 10, 2020.