"Bloom Where You Are Planted"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/11/1998
Psalm 66:1-12; Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Almost every Sunday we have people who are attending St. Matthew's for the first time. Every newcomer experiences this tension. In their mind they have a ledger with two columns. On one side is self-interest and on the other side is opportunity, i.e., "What am I going to get?" on one side and "What will I have the opportunity to give?" on the other.
For example, (1) "Is St. Matthew's a friendly church?" or "Could I make St. Matthew's even friendlier by joining it?"; (2) "Are the minister's sermons reinforcing the faith that I have known since I was a child?" or "Are the minister's sermons making me doubt? Are they making me feel uncomfortable? Are they making me stretch in my thinking?"; (3) "Are there sufficient programs for all the members of my family?" or "Will St. Matthew's give me the opportunity to begin new programs?"
Few of us realize how easy it is to be entertained or mesmerized by a worship service. This is often the first porthole through which observers look to evaluate the entire ship. Today churches employ all kinds of special affects. Churches use unique lighting, hymns are flashed on the wall, and they often use musicians who support large choirs which sing upbeat Gospel music. This is great stuff!
When such activities are done very well, the environment can be very persuasive, convincing us, "This is where I need to be." No matter where we are on our faith journey, however, the overriding question still remains, "Am I highly motivated to do my inner work or am I searching for some comfortable place to park where I can experience what inspires me?"
We can see this same tension operating in our workplace between "What am I going to get?" and "What will I have the opportunity to give?" Let me give you an example. Two people go to work for the same grocery store. They are both assigned to bagging customers' groceries and restocking the shelves.
One person is a ball of fire. The boxes are quickly stripped open with the cutter and the cans are put on the shelves with the labels facing the aisle. A customer needs help finding a product and she not only tells them the correct aisle, but she takes them there. When she's bagging groceries for customers, she is bagging for three cashiers. One could sense the inner competition going on inside, "No cashier will have to pause between customers. I can get these customers out of this store in a steady stream." The cashiers love her because she makes them look good. Motivation! She is blooming where she is planted!
Then there is the young man who cannot keep his eyes off the clock. He likes to talk and joke with the other employees. He does not know where raisins and marshmallows can be found. He is unhappy about the heavy cases of string beans and beets and can hardly wait until he can stock the potato chips. And when he bags groceries for customers, he can only manage to work with one cashier. He has to pick up everything and look at it before putting it in the bag. The cashier has to stop and help him before beginning with another customer's groceries.
Who knows what goes on inside people that causes one person to become highly motivated while another person waits for the world to get better. This same tension plays out in our relationships. It plays in how well we maintain our houses, our bodies and our minds. Basically the tension is between the belief that the world is set up to serve us and make us happy and the alternative belief that the world is set up to offer us untold opportunities to grow, improve and make a difference.
Jesus never tried to explain the differences between people. Yet he certainly recognized that such differences existed. Probably the best illustration of his understanding was his parable of the sower. He told the story of the wise sower who cast seed on various qualities of soil. The seed was of excellent quality. The crop yield was determined by the quality of soil on which the seed fell. People have not changed. It does not matter how many growth opportunities God offers. If people are poorly motivated, their crop yield will reflect that.
Our lesson today features common sense mixed with an understanding of the unconditional nature of God's love. The words come from a very ancient writer. No matter the century in which people have lived, there have always been thinkers and writers who understood God's nature. Jeremiah was one of these.
Any student of the Hebrew Scriptures will discover that among the writers who understood God's nature there were winners and losers. Anyone reading the Psalms will find words like, "How long, O Lord, do you intend to punish us." Psalm 74 begins, "Why have you abandoned us like this, O God?" Psalm 35 opens with, "Oppose those who oppose me, Lord, and fight those who fight against me!" In every generation people have tried to blame God for the quality of their experiences or they have attempted to tell God what to do.
Jeremiah did not beg God to rescue anyone. Jeremiah did not question God's purpose and did not engage in endless speculation about why Nebuchadnezzar was allowed to take the Hebrews as prisoners into Babylon. Jeremiah knew that assigning blame would not be helpful nor would it give anyone the opportunity to deal with their pain and frustration.
Once again we are faced with this tension. When life presents us with what is challenging, are we going to spend time analyzing the circumstances or are we are going to deal with them as effectively as we can? Some people love to study the roots of the tree while other people figure out ways to harvest the fruit. It all depends on where we want to invest our energy.
Just like with the newcomers to St. Matthew's or the two grocery store clerks, everyone moves through life forming different opinions, making different decisions and pursuing different options. Everyone decides between, "What am I going to get?" or "What opportunity do I have to give?"
Jeremiah was giving the Hebrews a way to make the best of a situation that had shattered their comfort levels. Their entire lives had centered around the Law, the Temple and the observance of Holy Days. Being taken into captivity in Babylon, the Hebrews had these spiritually nourishing symbols and practices removed from them. Jeremiah wrote them a letter in which he offered some words from God.
He wrote, "The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says, 'Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. Marry and have children. Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous, too.'"
In essence God was saying that instead of waiting for a better day to come, the Hebrews would best be served by blooming where they were planted. There are a lot of people who live their lives in a holding pattern, hoping for a better tomorrow. They are waiting for someone to come along and light up their life. Suppose that tomorrow never comes? Suppose that anticipated "savior" forgets to turn on their light?
This same mistake was made by the early Christians who were waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus. They were hoping that Jesus would come and "clean up" the world, forgetting that he had given that task to them. Isn't that fascinating? Some people are very sincere in waiting for and predicting Armageddon. They forget that Armageddon would represent nothing more than their failure to do what Jesus had asked.
So many sincere people allow fear to distract them, to erode their motivation or to cause them to believe that God is going to make their lives to work for them. Jesus said, "Some of the seeds fell among thorns and when they sprouted they were choked."
How many of us get sidetracked? How many of us spend time wishing that life would get better for us? How many of us pray for God to change other people so that we might feel better? There are a lot of people who have decided to spend their lives majoring in a lot of minor things. They get hung up. They decide to hammer away at one thing until it changes. A lot of life passes them by. A lot of opportunities are missed.
Jeremiah did not address such people with his writing. He knew that Nebuchadnezzar was very powerful and the likelihood for change rested in only one place. The people had to change. How easy is it to believe that God does not love us because we are unhappy where we are? Through Jeremiah God said, "Stop complaining and begin living."
If we look at this passage closely, God is telling the Hebrews the same thing that Jesus would tell them centuries later. God said, "Work for the good of the cities. Pray to me on their behalf." How similar these words are to Jesus' teaching, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
In this passage readers are given the opportunity to see how the salvation of the world happens. Salvation comes through people influencing other people by blooming where they are planted. Light has to somehow enter the circumstances where darkness dwells. We do not have to know God's reasons for anything that happens. What we do know is that we have all been given the ability and the opportunity to bloom. How do we know that? What other purpose for living is there but to bloom and give our circumstances the very best we can offer? That is what we were created to do.
In spite of all the wonderful illustrations we can point to, the critical issue for each of us is a matter of motivation, not inspiration. We love being inspired. We love feeling good. Who doesn't? Blooming where we are planted, however, takes a decision. It takes commitment. It takes faith. It takes follow-through. It takes doing our inner work, knowing that God is with us.
What is interesting is that no other decision will help us get any faster to the place where we want to be, the place where love, joy and peace reign in our lives. The truth is when we arrive there, we will have entered the Kingdom of God.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you God for allowing us to play a role that helps shape the lives of others. As a community of faith we never know who we touch with our smiles, our extended hands and our words of encouragement. We know the Holy Spirit heals in ways we could never know. Yet, we seek your inspiration so that with enthusiasm we wear our smiles, we use our hands and our words to heal. Thank you for the ability to think of others. Thank you for the capacity to sense the emptiness in another's spirit. Thank you for inspiring us with desire to fill empty cups, to nurture newcomers, and to extend ourselves through friendship. May the energy created by our community of faith inspire others to say "yes" to your calling to "come and follow me." We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
How wonderful it is, O God, to be a participant in so many dramas. While we sometimes wish that life would slow down and be boring for awhile, we realize we would never be happy or fulfilled if we were not busy making a difference in someone's life, making a contribution in our workplace, or having an impact on the future our children will one day inherit.
We are thankful that you called us to faithfulness rather than to know the meaning of life's events. We are grateful that you endowed us with the ability to love others even though we may never understand the path that brought them into our lives.
Enable us to be accommodating and generous of spirit. Enable us to become the shoulders upon which another may stand to see more clearly their life's choices. May we resist the temptation to create others in the image we want for them. May we develop the courage to allow people to be just as you created them, and give us the patience of spirit to trust that you are working your perfect will in spite of the judgments we may make. Cause us to remember that had Joseph not been sold into slavery by his brothers, thousands may have died of starvation.
We ask this day that healing come to troubled hearts, that worried minds may find peace, that people whose lives have experienced sudden change may trust in your leading. May we all remember the words of Jesus, "Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world." We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .