(A sermon for Pentecost 20, Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7)
We live on a charming, dead end street in Portland, near the University campus, and for the past few months, we have had the worst looking yard on the block. The 18 houses on our street are, at the moment, all nicely kept, and so are their yards and gardens. Ours has looked worse even than the yard of the house in the process of being flipped, with its earth movers and seed grass and straw.
The problem is not the grass, although its shady position and my reluctance to use pesticides mean it’s not your most exciting lawn. But we keep it neatly cut, so it’s reasonably presentable.
No, the problem is the shrubs, or the lack thereof.
In the late spring, we pulled out the aged and overgrown rhododendrons, yews and quince that have been in front of our 1928 vintage house for longer than anyone can remember. When I bought the house 9 years ago, I got the advice that the shrubs were already too far gone to trim back meaningfully, and it is no joke that last year the rhododendrons seemed poised to meet and cover the front door!
So we pulled them out, borrowed a friend’s truck and the friend’s help, and carted them to the place where that sort of thing can be composted.
And then we did nothing, largely because I could not decide what I wanted to plant. I twisted and turned, I pondered and puzzled, and I asked for advice I did not take. Last week I looked at the front of my house and tried to see it from the neighbor’s perspective and said to myself, “There goes the neighborhood.”
It’s not funny, really, because as a person who grew up in the South, I’ve heard too many stories of racially motivated refusals to sell a house to someone different. I’ve heard too many stories of neighborhoods that turn over in population entirely. And as a pastor I know plenty of tales of churches in neighborhoods that changed, seemingly forgetting about the churches all together, leaving the church feeling as if it is on an island instead of in an obvious position on a busy thoroughfare.
Jeremiah spoke to a group of people who felt all those things: abandoned, isolated, bereft. They wondered how it could be possible to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. Their understanding of worship and faithfulness centered on practices that required attendance at the Temple, a temple destroyed by the Babylonians, and they had no hope of seeing even its wreckage again, because it was so far away.
As Christians in America in the 21st century, we may not be exiles, but we may well feel like strangers in a strange land.
For many churches in the center of many towns like this one, the compass seemed to shift mysteriously. Such churches have not relocated, but the world has moved away from them, and they are seemingly cut off by the changing traffic pattern of contemporary life.
We wonder how to get people to us, but the more important question being raised by Jeremiah is how can we live as people of faith in a way that benefits the land in which we dwell, in a way that is good for the neighborhood?
And it goes both ways. By securing the good of the city or the neighborhood, we care for ourselves, too. And while that may sound a little craven or self-serving, I would remind you that Jesus instructed those who asked that the greatest commandment includes loving not only God and your neighbor, but loving yourself.
The Hebrew people in Babylon had three choices:
1. Convinced that God was present only in the Temple in Jerusalem and had abandoned them in exile, where they could not possibly follow the codes and practices that meant everything, they could give up on their faith.
2. Convinced that God was punishing them, they could try their very best to be faithful while avoiding contact with the new people and culture around them.
3. Convinced that God still loved them in this difficult and disconcerting time, they could look for new ways to show their faithfulness, ways which shared the love of God with their new community.
It’s really the ultimate form of hospitality, don’t you think? See to the welfare of the city; make sure the neighborhood benefits from your own good efforts; bloom where you are planted.
The Hebrew people took the prophet’s advice. They learned to live alongside and in relationship with their Babylonian neighbors without losing a sense of their authenticity. They married and had children. They planted gardens and ate the food they grew. They trusted God.
You know from hearing about the Wednesday Wizards this morning that we have an enthusiastic group of volunteers who make sure our church buildings are in good shape. In the brochure created by the Search Committee, you can see some of them gardening out front! They are a shining example of ways in which we can keep ourselves blooming where we’re planted. On a larger level, in the coming weeks our church will be hearing from the Trustees about their hopes for work on our physical plant aimed at helping us serve the welfare of the neighborhood and the city.
As for my yard, well, when I saw it through other people’s eyes and could stand it no longer, I called my sister-in-law. I told her about my problem and placed myself trustingly in her hands. Yesterday we met at my favorite nursery and considered the possibilities. We began with a very basic question: “The front yard is shady; what would work in partial sun?” We consulted with an employee and told her what had grown there in the past, the rhododendrons and the yews and the quince. She sighed and said, “Oh, those yews. I talk to a lot of people who are pulling out old yews.”
Some things do outlive their time, and apparently yews are among them.
We walked out among the shrubs and settled on smaller-sized rhododendrons with a charming pink blossom, then discussed top soil and mulch and compost before heading across the street to look at bulbs.
I need, you see, an idiot-proof garden, and bulbs work well for people like me.
We found an array of pinks and purples and whites: crocuses, narcissus, hyacinths and a charming little tulip. Our cars filled with plants, bulbs and bags, we caravanned home to eat some lunch. We had a scheme in mind and all the materials necessary. Now the real work began.
The church, in its hopes and planning is several steps behind my garden rehab project. The Trustees have identified possible uses for our great resource, the education building, just as I determined that I needed to make changes in front of my house. They have learned the building’s limitations, just as I had to acknowledge that my front yard does not receive full sun. And they have determined to ask for help, just as my sister-in-law and I did at the nursery.
At my house now, two large variegated hostas have been divided and re-planted to better trim the garden, good plants put to a better use. We got one of the new rhododendrons planted and encouraged it with good soil, old and new, and Maine compost and Sebago Lake water. It sits further to the right than the old rhododendron, a little further from the foundation of our house, too, and for now, its neighbors will not be shrubs. It gives me a glimmer of the future, a view toward next spring, while at the same time it changed things immediately.
My sister-in-law started planting the mixed narcissus bulbs, but a call from home took her away, and I set to work on them myself, enjoying the late afternoon sun at the same time I wished I had gotten one of those nifty bulb-planting tools. Over and over again, I put the spade into the earth, moved it back and forth, removed a little soil, then planted a bulb. They came from a mixed bag. I have no idea what sort of narcissus each bulb may produce. But although I have not yet experienced their beauty and their variety fully, I do feel sure they will bloom where they are planted.