Sunday, January 28, 2018



I started preparing a totally different sermon than the one I am about to preach. I had it practically finished, and so when I said to my family the other night that I needed to work on my sermon, my daughter said, “I thought you were done” to which I responded, “I’m not using that one. I don’t write sermons, sermons write me and there is a sermon that has been writing me all year that I need to get out.”

And so I started writing it down, but I started going in too many directions, so I had Juniper read over it and she helped me rearrange and focus.

So this is that sermon. The sermon that has haunted and guided and written me all year.

Let us pray.
Holy God who is present to us in all times and in all ways. You are closer than our next breath. You know all of our days before one of them came to be. You have searched us and know us. Help us to be present to you and to each other as we depend on Your Spirit’s comfort, wisdom and peace. Amen

Several years ago, I ran across a poem and then a blog by Macrina Wiederkehr. On her blog, she wrote about choosing a word for the year. This was not a new idea to me, but I thought I’d give it a try. So I picked a word and I think I forgot it by January 15th. So I tried again the next year and again didn’t really have follow through. In 2016, over the holiday break, I read a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer entitled Here I Am which is a pretty messed up story about some pretty messed up people and a family falling apart. But, in the midst of the story was such a beautiful through-line which resonated with my soul. The title comes from the Hebrew word, hineni, which means “here I am.” And so, with Jonathan and Macrina’s help, I chose hineni for my word for 2017.

So this totally new-to-me word cropped up in unexpected places. In the song “You Want it Darker” by Leonard Cohen on his last recording before his death, hineni appears in the chorus. When asked what it meant, he responded, “That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul.”

A new acquaintance had it tattooed on his forearm. The band Gungor has a beautiful song called “Every Breath” which ends with a haunting repetition of the phrase “Here I am.” At times of deep joy and also of deep desperation, I found myself with arms outstretched to God saying “Here I am, hineni.” And so, I kept my word all year long.

There are 2 ways to say “here I am” in Hebrew – one of them is poe which is like saying “here” when called from an attendance sheet. The other, hineni, has a deeper sense to it. Hineni implies readiness, total availability, an “at your service” all-in kind of response. Rabbi Ari Kaiman describes it this way, “Hineini means, ‘I am here for you fully, with the trust and vulnerability to do whatever it is you ask of me.’”

My text for this morning is Genesis 22:1-14 and I wish it wasn’t. It’s an upsetting story to say the least, but I, like some of you, grew up in the church coloring pictures of it and reciting the facts as if they were no big deal. The story is Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The reason that I chose this text is that it is the Torah portion for the eldest son, Sam’s bar mitzvah in the book, Here I Am. Before reading this book, I must admit, I had no idea that there is a part of the celebration, the bar mitzvah speech, where the 13 year old boy speaks on the Torah portion for the week of his birthday. He is called upon to reflect on the scriptures and tell those gathered how it spoke to him and/or how it applies to his life. And so instead of reading the text, I want to tell you the story in Sam’s words:

God’s Test of Abraham is written like this: “sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’, ‘here I am’, Abraham replied”. Most people assume that the test is what follows:God Asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But I think it could also be read that the test was when He called to him. Abraham didn’t say “what do you want?” He didn’t say, “Yes?” He answered with a statement: “Here I am.” Whatever God needs or wants, Abraham is wholly present for Him, without conditions or reservations or need for explanation.” That word, hineni – here I am – comes up two other times in the portion. When Abraham is taking Isaac up Mount Moriah, Isaac becomes aware of what they are doing, and how [messed] up it is. He knows that he is about to be the sacrifice, in the way all kids always do when it’s about to happen. It says: “And Isaac said to Abraham, his father, ‘My father!’ and he said ‘Here I am, my son’. And Isaac said, ‘Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?’ And Abraham said ‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’” Isaac doesn’t say “Father”, he says, “My father”. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, but is also Isaac’s father, his personal father. And Abraham doesn’t ask, “what do you want?” He says “Here I am”. When God asks for Abraham, Abraham is wholly present for God. When Isaac asks for Abraham, Abraham is wholly present for his son - But how can that be possible? God is Asking Abraham to kill Isaac and Isaac is asking his father to protect him. How Can Abraham be two directly opposing things at once? (…) My bar mitzvah portion is about many things, but I think it is primarily about who we are wholly there for and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.

It was this bar mitzvah speech that stayed with me throughout the year as I meditated on Hineni. Who am I wholly there for and how is that, more than anything else, defining my identity? What does it mean to be wholly there for and available and present to someone else or to God?

When I read this story in the past, because of the Sunday school picture familiarity of it, I didn’t think about this being about a real person. I didn’t think about how Abraham could have said no. Or about whether or not he talked it over with his wife or anyone else. I didn’t think about the tedium of getting the servants and animals and Isaac ready to go on this journey and how every excruciating moment of it must have felt like a lifetime. Or about how old Abraham was. He and God had already been through a lot and the promised son had finally come. Abraham might have thought it was time to sit back and relax and enjoy his final days.

Eliezer Berkovits in his book, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Death Camps, imagines what Abraham must have been saying to God in those days (three days, as a matter of fact) as he is preparing and traveling to make the sacrifice:
“In this situation I do not understand You. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust You because it is You, because it is You and me, because it is us. . . . Almighty God! What you are asking of me is terrible. . . . But I have known you, my God. You have loved me and I love You. My God, you are breaking Your word to me. . . . Yet I trust You; I trust You.”

Abraham had waited decades for this promised child that he is marching up the mountain to kill. And when Isaac calls to him and says, “My father?” Abraham says, “Here I am.” How could Abraham be present to Isaac at that moment? The same way we are present to our loved ones as they suffering through an illness or heartbreak. The same way we are present to those who have been discarded and undervalued. This dark and unexplainable place where we feel terrified - where easy answers won’t work.

Ellen F. Davis, in her essay The Blinding Horror of Abraham’s Faith says:

This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagine God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or deny that God cares at all, or deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it—because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind. To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith.

This type of faith is a step out of the boat type of faith. Defying the laws of gravity and nature and seemingly God himself, we trust that we have heard His voice and we step out. And as long as we have our eyes on Him, the water becomes like firm ground.

We sing this song nowadays, this “Oceans” song by Hillsong United, that has a repeated bridge that says “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters wherever You would call me.”

Do we mean that? How can we possibly mean that? If I am honest with myself, the song of my heart is “Spirit, lead me where my trust isn’t stretched too far, let me walk on the nice safe ground where I can reach You if I need You.” But that isn’t very catchy or inspirational and it has nothing to do with faith.

We can only be present to others because God has been, and is, and will be present to us. When Abraham hears God’s voice, he responds, “Hineni, here I am” because he knows God and is available to Him. And when God asks him this unthinkable thing, this thing that seems to go against God’s very nature, he reaches in to the deepest reserves of his faith and obeys.

A heartbreaking obedience drawn from a reservoir of faith.

And then in the midst of the painful walk up the mountain, when Isaac calls out to him, Abraham says Here I am, son. I’m here. I’m here.

Here I am and I don’t have any answers. Here I am and I love you. Here I am and God is here too and He will provide. I don’t know how, but I know Him.

This is the essence of faith. We can only be authentically and unreservedly available to others as much as we have been authentically and unreservedly available to God. Otherwise, when the darkness comes and we feel like we and everyone around us will be swallowed up, our fear will drown us.

When I was a teenager, my cousin died in a car accident. The church that my aunt and uncle attended had a Laity Sunday where the lay leader of the church gives the sermon. That year, my uncle was the lay leader and the Sunday after my cousin died was Laity Sunday. The pastor and staff of the church offered to find someone else, but my uncle said he wanted to go ahead with it as planned. I remember sitting in the sanctuary that Sunday knowing that if he could show up for God that morning that God must be real and knowable and more than anything a co-sufferer with those who suffer.

As my uncle talked about faith, he compared it to crabgrass. He went on to describe a patch growing in his patio - as he went to remove the weed, he reached down and pulled and almost fell on his face. This is why he said that faith is like crabgrass - because you don’t know how strong it is until you try to uproot it.

At the end of the Here I Am book, Sam’s younger brother is preparing his bar mitzvah speech. His Torah portion is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

He has this to say, “It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas. They’re close to us—sometimes so close we think they are part of us—and then, at some point, they aren’t close anymore. They go away. Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is struggle.”

And so we struggle. We struggle to be present to each other. To not let go of each other without a fight. To hold on in good times and bad.

And we struggle to be present to God. To hear His voice. To find the courage to say “here I am” when He calls. "I am here for you fully, with the trust and vulnerability to do whatever it is you ask of me."

I want to close with the last part of the Gungor song, “Every Breath.” As you listen to the words as they are repeated, I encourage you to ask God to help you say Hineni to Him today. Here I am! Gungor song, start at 3:42

Isaiah 6:6-8 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.” Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”
I said, “Here I am. Send me.”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Line of Best Fit

Our text today is James 3:13-18

James 3:13-18New International Version (NIV) Two Kinds of Wisdom

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James lays out for us here two kinds of wisdom: one is earthly, unspiritual, demonic even and the other is a wisdom that comes from heaven. Last week, when we talked about the tongue - there was a similar contrast. David Kersten talked about the fire of the Holy Spirit vs. the fire that is ignited by the fires of hell also of the spring of Living Water vs. the well of brackish water from which we can choose our words.

In the dictionary, wisdom is defined as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” And this isn’t a bad starting point, but what experience? What knowledge? What is good judgment vs. bad judgment? In order for this definition to make sense, we have to have some parameters - a way to further define the terms.

As James says there is a wisdom that is earthly and this wisdom is characterized by selfish ambition and bitter envy. Now that doesn’t sound very wise to me - but if your goal is to be a billionaire or the top in your field or first chair in the orchestra - then these two “virtues” can get you far. Our society looks favorably on people who exhibit these qualities and although we might not consider them wise, they live close to their principles and accomplish their goals. If you want to be an olympic gold-medalist, you have to think primarily of yourself, and you also have to know how you are doing compared to others - the definition for the Greek word translated envy in this passage includes the idea of a contentious rivalry - something that is highlighted regularly in our competitive society. Jeremy talked about this two weeks ago when he was pointing out the ways scholars for centuries have pitted James against Paul.

David Brooks, in his article entitled “The Moral Bucket List”, says that there are “two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues” A eulogy is what someone says about you after you die whereas a resume is written, usually by yourself, to make your accomplishments sound good enough to get the job. Sounds a little like our two types of wisdom. The article goes on to say, “We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

But even these “eulogy values” can be selfish - if we value what people say about us or how we compare to others - we are still living according to earthly wisdom.

So how do we tap into heavenly wisdom?

Looking to the Old Testament, we find written several times this phrase or a variation of this phrase, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Daniel Goleman, author of the book “Emotional Intelligence,” said, “One aspect of wisdom is having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves,” or even on our group or organization. For us as Christians, the way that we find this wide horizon is to fear the Lord.

This might sound strange - to fear the Lord - but it doesn’t mean to be afraid of God, but to have a right picture of the power, majesty and magnitude of the God of the Universe. JB Phillips wrote a book many years ago entitled Your God is Too Small and I think this is the beginning of unwise decisions and actions - putting God in some comfortable box or diminishing Him to some good teacher or thinking of Him primarily as our Friend.

One practical way to fear God was introduced by Benedict in the 6th century in his rule for living: “Keep death always before your eyes.” This isn’t meant to be morbid or taken out of the context of a life of faith.  Death is a perspective giver, we have to think about what happens next - will we stand before the God of the universe? This gives us a healthy “fear” or awe of Him. Jesus invites us to die every day - “take up [your] cross daily and follow Me.” We see this same idea over and over in Paul’s letters, one example is found in Colossians 3:3  “ For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

We are invited to live an eternal life - this eternal life starts NOW not when we physically die - we are invited to die daily to this earthly existence and live a new life, a different life, a life hidden with Christ in God.

Sometimes taking up our cross daily doesn’t seem often enough. We are bombarded with choices constantly to live as good-newsers or bad-newsers, to live into the reality of the gospel or to give in to the value system of the world. Paul has a further exhortation to “take hold of each and every thought and make it obey Christ.”

C.S. Lewis gives us this illustration: “[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.”

I’m gonna get a little mathy on you now. Please don’t panic. I promise to take it slow and explain it so that even if you hate math you can see the connection I am trying to draw.

Let’s say you flip a coin. What are the chances that you get tails? 50/50 - right! So, in theory, if I flip a coin 100 times, how many times will I get tails? 50, correct. What about if I flip it 40 times, how many tails? 20, right! So, what if I flip it 15 times? Not so easy to answer now is it? There is no such thing as 7.5 tails. So what happens in reality, doesn’t always match what the ideal. 

This graph shows in orange, the theoretic perfection of half - the 50/50 chance of getting tails when you flip the coin. The blue dots represent what actually happened when I flipped a coin 18 times. Sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes I didn’t - in fact it was impossible half of the time. 

When experiments are recorded on a graph, scientists look for a pattern to determine future events or to make a conclusion about the success of the experiment. In both of these cases, there is a positive correlation, meaning that the trend is upward. One has a stronger correlation than the other. After the data points are on the graph, you find the “trend line” or the “line of best fit”
All of the points don’t hit the line, but you can see where it is trying to get to or what the trend is.

I just read a book called The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and in the book there is a despicable character. As much as I disliked this character, I had to respect him for one thing: his tenacity and determination to stick to his goals. Now, his goals were horrifying, but they determined his every action and he stayed very close to his own depraved principles.  His line of best fit and his actions were aligned but I think it was definitely a negative correlation.

You have to know where you are aiming so that you can know how well the “experiment” is measuring up. I am suggesting this morning that the life of Jesus is our line of best fit. J.B. Phillips, in his book Your God Is Too Small explains it this way: “The truth taught by Jesus Christ is the right way to live. It is ... God Himself explaining in terms that men can readily grasp how life is meant to be lived.” The trend line, the line of perfect fit! Jesus lived a perfect life manifesting all of the properties of wisdom found in our passage this morning. He was “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” And when we embody these characteristics, we come closer to that new life, that kingdom life, that eternal life that Jesus invites us into.

Norvene Vest puts it this way, “How odd that one small act of kindness or indifference has anything to do with eternal life? And yet, once I begin to see it that way, how comforting the sense that there is some continuity between the fact of charity here and whatever life is like there. My hunch grows that it is by these daily acts that I begin to build habits or dispositions which draw me closer to God or take me further away, till one day I shall realize that the Kingdom has already come and I did not know it.”

Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God has come! We can live in it even now and bring it close to those around us.

This seems impossible. And it is! Just like you can’t have 12.5 tails with 25 coin tosses, we cannot live a perfect life. God knows this and He wants to help us! In the beginning of James we were promised “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” And now we know what wisdom is - you can substitute any of these parts of heavenly wisdom: If any of you lacks purity, If any of you lacks peace-loving-ness, if any of you lacks submission, mercy, impartiality, sincerity - ask God and He’ll give it to you without finding fault.

But thinking of Jesus as our line of best fit makes Him into this impossible ideal that we are trying to reach and that’s not good news. So I have another analogy that shows that the power comes from Him and not from us: a tow rope!

If you have never had to use a tow rope on a ski or sledding hill - let me tell you about the first time that I ever used one. Heather Stahnke and I were on a ski trip together when she was a student, so we’re talking over 20 years ago and we were going sledding on a hill that was built as a ski hill, but was just not tall enough and so was converted to a sledding hill. In order to get to the top of this almost ski hill, there was a tow rope. You were supposed to sit in your sled and then grab a hold of the already in motion tow rope just above your shoulders. So we did this, but we were sharing a sled and I’m not sure how, but all of sudden we were being dragged up the hill on our coats and snow-pants while trying to hold on to the sled with our boots. It was quite the sight. I have this short video to show you a tow rope in action.

Which calls to mind the verse that says, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” but that’s a whole different sermon.

The tow rope is like the line best fit, but it pulls us along with it! If we stay connected to the source, then we’ll stay on the right track. Even if we fall, we just pick ourselves up and take hold again. The end of the rope holds secure, anchored within the veil and Jesus ever moves us heavenward. Crazy thing is, if we stay connected to the vine, the tow rope, the trend line, the source, we will realize that the kingdom has arrived and we have already started living eternally with God.

Let’s go back to the line of best fit illustration one more time. Here are 3 different experiments, one with positive, one with negative and one with no discernible correlation. What does your life look like? Are your wisdom, decisions, actions and thoughts lining up with the line of best fit life we see demonstrated in the life of Jesus? If so, then you are probably tapping into that eternal life more and more and living into the kingdom. If not, you are probably experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance and pain. If you are all over the map, it might be time to choose. Philippians 1:6 assures us that God, who began the good work within us, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

I have a couple of humorous illustrations to reinforce this idea:

click here for the video clip (I muted in church!)

Just hold on! No amount of falls will undo us if we keep getting up. Jesus, ready, stands to rescue you, full of empathy, love and power.

None of us can live a life perfectly pleasing to God - and no matter what our life looks like or has looked like, we can tap into the Holy Spirit power that is transforming us - 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it this way: “... we all, with unveiled faces, continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being transformed into His image from one degree of glory to even more glory...”

I want to leave you with these words from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga: “St. Benedict wasn’t asking us to be morbid when he told us to keep death daily before our eyes. Rather, he was asking us to be wise:  know your reality, cherish it, live it fruitfully right this minute, growing in your awareness that Christ is with you in this little here and now, making you ready, and through you making your world ready, for that day when “now” will open out into the “forever” we anticipate joyfully…”

Jude 24-25 To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


Our text for today comes from Jeremiah 29.
Starting in verse 4 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare."  

Skipping down to verse 10 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised and I will bring you home again.  
Let us pray.

Eugene Peterson describes exile this way "The essential meaning of exile is that we are where we don't want to be. We are separated from home ... It is an experience of dislocation - everything is out of joint; nothing fits together.”

I just read a delightful book entitled Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrick Backman. In this book, Britt-Marie, a woman in her sixties, is looking for a job for the first time in decades because her marriage has ended and she is frankly a little lost. On the back of the book she is described as a "socially awkward, fussy busybody."

She gets a job as the caretaker of a soon to be closed recreation center in Borg, a run-down forgotten town. The book overview continues: “The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?”

The skills she had perfected in her marriage were hosting dinner parties, taking care of her plants and her husband’s children and cleaning. She also is supremely good at making and following lists - So when she finds herself in this new place, she does what she knows how to do.

And somehow, through it all, she endears herself to this little broken down town and they are all the better for it.  From the book, Britt-Marie “wonders how much space a person has left in her soul to change herself, once she gets older. What people does she still have to meet, what will they see in her and what will they make her see in herself?”

I am telling you this story in the context of exile, because I think her story gives us some great guidelines for the life of an exile - which is what we all are if we are Christians - aliens and strangers in the world. And I also think it echoes back to the message God gave through Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon.

The first lesson of Jeremiah 29 is found in verse 4 "Build houses. Plan to stay." Make yourselves at home. Settle in.

At the beginning of the book, Britt-Marie is scared and lost and so so sad. Stripped of everything she knows and living alone in a room in a hostel - a place that “has an address, but it’s certainly not a place to live nor a home.”

It is devastating to find yourself in exile. Exile has many forms: a physical limitation, a difficult relationship, a tense work environment, a lost romance, having to move to an unknown place, dreams failing to come true.

Have you been there?  Are you there?  When you find yourself in exile somewhere in your life, what is your tendency?  Do you run away? escape into fantasies? numb with food or other substances?   Do you try to find someone to blame?  take it out on others?  Do you try to hurt someone so you won’t be hurting alone?

Eventually after getting the job at the rec center and settling in a bit, Britt-Marie finds a place to live.  She moves from being a visitor, an outsider, to being a resident, a part of the community.
Here you are. Far from where you thought you’d be. Build a house here. In your brokenness and your isolation. In the unfamiliar territory. Plant a garden. The only way through is through.

You didn't even know how much you needed God until you got here. Going along in your everyday routines and the busy-ness of life, you hardly noticed how much you were crowding out God's presence. Suddenly, seemingly without warning, you find yourself in exile. And it's a grace. Kathleen Norris explains this grace: “For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn't know we needed and take us places where we didn't know we didn't want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. ”

God has our attention. now what?

The second lesson of Jeremiah 29 is found in verse 7: "work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you" roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Britt-Marie and her "unrivaled knowledge of cleaning products" gets to work. She cleans and cleans and runs the pizzeria slash grocery slash post office slash car repair workshop when the owner is hung-over or asleep or both. She washes soccer jerseys and cuts hair. She does whatever comes her way. She uses what she knows and applies it to her new circumstances.

She does the next right thing.

All through the books of the Law, God gave the Israelites specific instructions on how to live. From the clothes they wore to the way they prepared their food, God wanted to be present to His people. His instructions about how to care for the poor, the widow, the foreigner and the 7 year cycles of economic restoration showed them how to be good neighbors, filled with compassion and justice.  It can be summed up with this simple blueprint for living: "do what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

In exile, the Israelites are expected to live this way in the midst of their captors so that they can bring about peace and prosperity to their enemies. Jesus echoes this in His sermon on the mount: "love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven."

Your exile might be intensifying your attentiveness to God – bringing about your salvation in a deeper way – but your salvation is not for you alone. It is for the welfare of the city – the peace and prosperity of the place in which you find yourself.

Through her care for her fellow residents and her attentiveness to their needs, Britt-Marie causes this small neglected community to dare to hope again.

Jesus tells us: "You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father."

The third lesson of Jeremiah 29 is also found in verse 7: "its welfare will determine your welfare" if the city thrives, you will thrive. In its peace, you will have peace.

This reminds me of what Jesus says about the sheep and the goats. You saw Me naked, lonely, hungry and you met My needs. When did we see You hungry, when did we visit You? they ask Him. They didn't know. They didn't do it because they thought it was Jesus. They didn't have a checklist of righteousness – they sought the welfare of those around them. Their faith and compassion in action reflected the condition of their hearts.

This is what happens when you choose to do the next right thing. You plant your tiny seed of faith that becomes branches where birds can nest. Work your little bit of yeast in the dough. Plant seeds in good soil. You bring the kingdom to earth.

The title of the book is Britt-Marie Was Here and – this isn't really a spoiler – the last sentence in the book is "Everyone will know that Britt-Marie was here." By being present, working for the prosperity of the place in which she was exiled, she makes a lasting impact.

The fourth and final lesson of Jeremiah 29 is found in verse 10: "I will bring you home again."  restoration. homecoming.

The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world."

C.S. Lewis describes our homecoming this way: "No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard."

I am not going to tell you how the book ends for Britt-Marie. I will say this: restoration comes in a different form after exile. There are things you thought you needed that you no longer need. There are things you wouldn't have even dreamt to hope for. Near the end of the book, Britt-Marie comes to the conclusion:  "At a certain age almost all the questions a person asks him or herself are really just about one thing: how should you live your life?”

Jesus assures us, "If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it." Eugene Peterson says in his book Run With the Horses “The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible, but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, to discover truth, to create beauty, to act out of love”

I think some of you know what comes next in Jeremiah 29. Even if you didn't know it was the next verse, I think it will sound familiar to a lot of you.
Jeremiah 29:11 says: "For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope; and then verses 12-13: In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you."

The "those days" that the Lord is referring to is the days of exile. While you are in exile, you will find what you are looking for.

Britt-Marie found restoration in soccer balls and window cleaner, whiskey and cutlery drawers, rats and snickers, prison and hospital waiting rooms, pizzerias and parking lots.

God is in the least of those around us, in the whirlwind and in the whisper. In the midst of your pain, in the midst of the wreckage, in the midst of the dislocation and isolation, if you look for God wholeheartedly, you will find Him. He will be found by you.

a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
"You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody Me.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose Me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give Me your hand."