"You Are Not Your Environment"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 14, 2007

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19

     Our lesson for this morning comes from Jeremiah, one of the Major Prophets. To give you a little background on this designation, the prophets are divided into two categories that are labeled major and minor. Their division has nothing to do with any prophets’ content, theology or contribution; it has to do with the sheer volume of what they wrote. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for example, are Major Prophets as compared to the likes of Amos, Hosea, or Micah who are considered Minor Prophets.

     Jeremiah lived in both the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. He claimed that the word of the Lord burned in him so that he could not hold it back. He was deeply troubled by his own message because he loved his people. He knew that his words would hurt them because many of them sincerely believed that they were living faithfully under the Law.

     Many of us can remember when we were punished by our parents who said, “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you.” We always had a response to those words, but Jeremiah felt this way because he understood his role as one that tried to preserve the spiritual integrity and character of his people. He knew that social values were slowly declining as today they are in our own culture.

     He predicted that a major catastrophe was coming that would cause the destruction of Jerusalem. He lived to see this even happen. The army of Babylon swept into Judah and destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. The greatest nightmare of the Jewish people occurred when Judah’s king, many of the leading citizens and skilled craftsmen were carried into Babylon. This drama sets the stage for today’s lesson from Jeremiah.

     Try to imagine yourselves in these circumstances. Our cars, houses, pension plans, Social Security checks, jobs, friends, our church, our shopping centers, would be swept away. All that we have left is our memory of such things. What is worse is that there is no hope of our ever getting them back because we are now being assimilated into another culture.

     This is exactly what has happened to many refugees in today’s world who have had to flee their homelands in order to escape being killed. Only by having all our cultural and financial supports removed from our lives would we realize how much of our identity has been defined by our environment. We have never had this experience. All of us, however, have experienced change.

     For example, recently I received an e-mail from Hal Cohoon. Almost every Sunday, Hal unlocked the church and was sitting in the narthex by the time I arrived at 7:45 a.m. While the Cohoons were originally from North Carolina, Bowie had been their home for decades. They sold their home, broke all continuity with what was familiar in our area and moved back to their home state.

     Hal told me that they were still unpacking boxes. He told me how the pace of life was much slower. Grid locked traffic patterns are non-existent. The shopping centers were close by with readily available parking. Without his former usher responsibilities, he and Sandy can now sit together in church for the first time in many years. They are still adjusting. He did indicate, however, that there were two more houses for sale in his cul-de-sac if Lois and I were interested.

     Those of us who have moved several times know these feelings. Because of the will of the Bishop, the Stetlers have moved from Cheverly where I grew up, to Martinsburg, to Capitol Hill and now to Bowie. We adjust because we are surrounded by qualities of life that have not changed. Let me give you another example that more precisely fits those to whom Jeremiah was writing.

     It would be a very cleansing experience for most Americans to spend time in another culture where there is no American Consulate or Embassy. When we add to the recipe of our little drama a robbery where every form of identification, money and credit cards are stolen. We don’t know the language of that country and no one speaks English. Who would we be in this circumstance? Jeremiah had the answer.

     There are a couple of thoughts that stand out in our remarkable passage for today. The first thought is that God assumed full responsibility for everything that had happened to these Jews. It was God who allowed Nebuchadnezzar’s military to take them as captives into Babylon. It was God who allowed Jerusalem and the Temple to be destroyed. It was God who allowed the Jews to become captives in foreign cities where language, customs and the form of government were different.

     Why would God do this? Punishment? Does Jeremiah have God engaged in these activities because the people pursued other gods and lived in disobedience? Possibly. Perhaps there is a much more powerful lesson here, than the Jews being punished for disobedience. Sometimes we forget our connection to God until all our gods turn up missing and are no longer able to serve us. Another form of divine love is to provide us with a course correction that we may not recognize or like.

     God was still with them in captivity. God became the source of continuity, their ethnicity as the chosen people, encouragement and support. They were about to learn that they were not their environment. The Jews could now rediscover a relationship that had been lost through years of forgetful neglect.

     The second thought in this passage comes in the form of instructions to the captives to live in the present moment. They were not their environment. They were not their past. They were not their current worldview. If they spent time looking back, they could become bitter and resentful. If they spent their time dreaming about going home, they might risk not seeing the opportunities in their present setting.

     Through Jeremiah, God told them to build houses and settle down, to marry and have children, to work for the good of the cities, and interestingly enough, to pray for the success of their enemy, the Babylonians, because when they became prosperous, the Jews would also prosper.

     In other words, God told the Jews not to consider themselves as refugees or captives but rather as citizens of a new community. God was telling them to be contributors instead of remaining aloof because their environment had changed. They had to change how they were thinking. They had to be accepting of where they were and create thoughts that kept them moving forward.

     I will never forget an episode of Candid Camera. Some of the sequences of that show were classics because they captured many of our human qualities and frailties. This episode featured a gate guarded by a security guard on one of the roads leading into Pennsylvania. As cars approached, the drivers were told that the state was closed for the day. People verbally delivered their predicable objections. One truck driver was so disgusted at the absurdity of what he was being told that every other word was bleeped out.

     However, there was a most delightful woman who approached the guard. When she was told that the state was closed. She asked, “Why would they do that?” The guard responded, “It is something like spring-cleaning.” She said, “Oh, I thoroughly understand. Do you think that New Jersey is open?” The guard assured her that it was. She said, “Well, then, I will go over there and drive around Pennsylvania.”

     There is something wonderfully innocent about people who are so flexible, so resilient and so cooperative that absolutely nothing inconveniences them. They always have a plan that takes them around what typically upsets most people.

     Of course, the headlines in the newspapers today are about the people who engage in their form of justice. They return to their businesses and schools with guns to seek revenge on what they believe were personal attacks. When their world changes in a way not to their liking, their minds create aggressive thought patterns.

     Unfortunately today, fear and apprehension are now part of a school administrator’s universe in light of last week’s two episodes where kids either brought guns to school or were conspiring to do so. There was also the young man in Wisconsin who took the lives of so many because his former girlfriend found someone else. Jeremiah was placing God’s presence in their midst in such a form that people would not fall prey to self-destructive ways of perceiving.

     The third thought of God’s word was to turn a deaf ear to what their prophets were telling them. God said, “I, the Lord God of Israel, warn you not to let yourselves be deceived by the prophets who live among you or by any others who claim they can predict the future. Do not pay any attention to their dreams. They are telling you lies in my name.”

     It is interesting that Jesus stood on the same foundation of ideas as Jeremiah. The same three essential thoughts in this passage were translated by Jesus to mean, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you and turn away from those who claim to speak for God but have not love.” In more contemporary thoughts, Jesus’ words are saying, “Bloom where you are planted.” “Grow in the direction your tree is bent.”

     We find this path extremely difficult to walk. There are moments in life when we feel abandoned by God. We may wonder what we have done to injure our relationship to God. Is God punishing us or is God giving us a wake up call? Many people remain confused about what to think.

     When we become absolutely convinced that we are not what is taking place in our environment, we are not our relationships, we are not the circumstances we are experiencing, we become open to the remembrance that God is our link to our true identity. We came from the spirit realm where God dwells and one day we will transition from our physical forms and have our full memories restored to us. No matter where we are or what we are experiencing, God has equipped us to live anywhere, with anyone at any time.

     Once I was climbing Saw Tooth Mountain in the Sierra National Forest in California. I was going up a steep escarpment of jagged rocks and boulders when I came on a small pine tree growing in the cleft of a rock. It was the only life form for as far as my eyes could see. I paused and spoke to it. Judging by its growth, the little tree had been growing there for quite some time. That scene has served me well through the years. That little tree transformed that entire environment for me simply by being faithful to what it was in a hostile and barren land.

     What about us? We live in a world of rapidly changing values. In deference to people who have no regard or consciousness for God, our celebration of God’s presence has been greatly marginalized by social pressures. Newer generations are given little or no background regarding their spiritual inheritance. The result of this neglect is visible everywhere.

     As Jeremiah reminded his people, there are consequences even when we live in ignorance. There are certain attitudes, moods and activities that prevent us from reaching our potential. Such responses do not condemn us, they only delay who we could eventually become.

     Jesus indicated that we must stay connected to the vine. The choice is always ours. Even in circumstances that we perceive as not to our liking, we have the power to make visible our spirit filled with loving energy patterns. Jeremiah wrote about this process. Jesus demonstrated this truth with his life. Now it is our turn to live what we have been taught.


     Loving God, how grateful we are, that you created us with the capacity to learn. Each generation attempts to refine its goals, methods and products. We like to think of ourselves as experts at designing tomorrow. Yet, the results we create often humble us. Our research creates new medications while we often neglect taking care of our health. Our food chain is both abundant and varied, yet we have not learned how to feed the hungry people in our world. We each own a Bible, but we confess that we do not study the Scriptures as we could. Through consequences and insights, continue to give us guidance, O God, for what it means to bloom where we are planted. Each of us hopes that you will always find us being willing students who are seeking how best to create in the midst of the changing circumstances that surround us. Amen.


     Eternal God, we thank you for placing within us a part of yourself. Writers from another time understood this idea and described how each of us was created in your imagine, just a little lower than the angels. We are thankful for that part of us that remains sensitive to the loving energy patterns we have the potential to give away in spite of the overlay of distractions that come at us every day.

     Certain chapters of our lives and various episodes in our experience try to rewire our minds with cables that transport fear, self-doubt, failure, pessimism, frustration and anger. So many experiences try to define us and when we are not careful, we can forget that we are your creations with the potential to reflect your presence. How often, when we feel perfectly justified, we develop amnesia and cannot remember who Jesus invited us to become.

     Every week, O God, we are reminded just why Jesus sent his disciples into the world to teach others how to live in community, how to give and not count the cost in relationships, how to row our boats gently down the stream, and how to live according to your design. Inspire us to expand our horizons, to stretch in our vision of tomorrow and to greet each new opportunity with enthusiasm and confidence. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .