Sunday, October 10, 2010

Today's Sermon: Jer 29: 1,4-7 “Deal With It!”

In just about any quaint gift shop in America – you know the ones, with the word “shop” spelled as “Shoppe” as an indicator of the quaintness, you’ll see a little plaque or needlepoint pillow for sale. It’s usually got a daisy or a geranium on it, with the words beneath: “Bloom where you’re planted.”

Some of us heard this phrase from our grandmothers first, and the message that Meemaw or Grandma or Nonna was giving us was a simple one: do the best you can, where you are, no matter what the situation, and don’t complain or wish you were somewhere else.

Poker players have a similar motto “work with the hand you’re dealt.” Even if the cards are not the best, use the skills you have and do your best to maximize what you’ve got.

An even shorter and more pointed phrase came in to use in recent years: “deal with it!”

All these phrases, be they charming or brusque, say the same thing. Wherever you are, whatever is happening in your life, you have a choice. You can complain about what you don’t have, or you can take what you’ve been given and do your best with it.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah is saying to the people of Israel, held in captivity in the Babylonian exile, and complaining bitterly about it.

The Psalm that is often referred to in this period of Israel’s history is Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion….How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” God’s wayward people, taken captive and exiled to Babylon, weeping and miserable amongst the pagans, wondering how this could have come to pass. And Jeremiah, who had warned them that they would be punished if they didn’t shape up, sends them a message, a tough one for them to hear: “You’re going to be here for a while. God will not pluck you out of this mess you made quickly. So if you’re going to be there, it’s time to stop complaining and wailing and start shaping up. Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have children, and marry off those children to continue this line of the House of David.”

And the very last instruction he gives them seems strange indeed: “Seek the welfare of the place where you now live in exile and pray for its welfare, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Pray for the good of the place that is such a place of bitterness for them? Pray for their enemies? The Hebrew word for what they were to pray for was “shalom,” an abiding sense of well-being in every aspect of life. And that word shalom is used three times – praying for the shalom of the city, because if there was shalom in the city, the exiles would find the shalom of God as well. They would satisfied with where they were and what they did.

It’s another version of “bloom where you’re planted/work with the hand you’ve been dealt/deal with it!”

When Jeremiah sent this message, it wasn’t necessarily happily received. But something about Jeremiah’s words rang true, and the people did what he said were the instructions from God: build houses, plant gardens, raise families, and live as good members of the society in which you now reside, contributing to its welfare.

Was it the situation that they wanted? No. But here they were in Babylon. They had a choice. They could sit by the waters and cry all day long, or they could dry their tears, straighten up, and bloom where they were planted.

Can we bloom where we are planted? Can we take the hand we’ve been dealt, and work with it? Can we deal with it?

There are times when we look around us and start thinking of what we don’t have. “I wish I had more money.” “I wish I was in better health.” “I wish I had someone special in my life.” “I wish I could find a job, or a better job.” We sit by the waters of Babylon and we weep.

A little weeping is a good thing, but perhaps it is equally good to find a way to say, “This is the hand I’ve been dealt, so I’ll work with it and do the best I can.”

I was listening to a new CD on my iPod the other day, by one of my favorite artists, a classical singer by the name of Thomas Quasthoff. It was a pretty amazing CD – Quasthoff, a German, normally sings the songs of composers like Schubert and Strauss, and in this CD he covered jazz standards and tunes from the Great American Songbook. His beautiful voice soared and crooned and growled through those familiar standards, tunes like “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Accentuate the Positive,” and “In my Solitude.” And I thought of the time I saw and heard him in concert at the Kennedy Center a decade ago.

He walked out on stage, following his accompanist, Justus Zeyen. Zeyen was perhaps six feet tall, a slender man in a black tux, with spiky blonde hair. Quasthoff was not four feet tall, in a black turtleneck and slacks. His arms were barely arms at all, just short appendages coming out of his shoulders, with hands that resembled flippers. He had been born with these severe physical limitations because his mother had taken the drug thalidomide during her pregnancy. It became apparent in his childhood that he was quite bright – the drug that so cruelly caused his misshapen body had not affected his intellect at all. And he excelled in school, and it also became evident that he had musical talent, so much so that he wanted to go to the conservatory. But the conservatory would not admit him as a voice major, because with his nonfunctional hands, he could never learn to play the piano. So instead he went to university and then on to law school. But his gift for music continued to grow, nurtured by teachers who saw the gift and not the limitations, and by listeners who fell in love with the exquisite baritone voice and musical artistry that he showed.

That night in the Kennedy Center, sitting perched on a stool, he sang the “Winterreise,” a song cycle of love and tragedy and joy by Schubert. He took his audience from the intensity of the Earl-king riding through the night to love under the linden trees. And after the regular program, he sang an encore “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” A tour de force, a spiritually uplifting and beautiful rendering, his voice ranging across three octaves. He blew us away. And in that 90 minute period that we listened to him, we did not see the short stature, the absence of normal arms, the odd walk. We saw and heard only a man of extraordinary gifts taken to the maximum level that he could take them, sharing them with love and grace.

Quasthoff has been interviewed occasionally, and when asked about the refusal of the conservatory to accept him, he said, "At the time I felt punished for a problem that I was not responsible for." "Looking back now, because I had to study privately it was a chance to involve myself much more deeply in the music. There would have been many distractions at music college. I had vocal lessons nearly every day; normally it is one and a half hours a week. Now I think it was a good thing, but at that time it was hard for me."[1]

He refuses to be categorized as "disabled". "For me, my disability is a fact and not a problem. I'm not living the life of a disabled person. For sure, I have to handle some things differently from other people. But it's not so different from the life of someone who is not disabled. In any case, who is really not disabled? I am in the lucky position that everyone can see it. But if you are never happy, if you are only concerned about money or success, this is in my opinion also a kind of disability."[2]

Bloom where you’re planted. Work with the hand you’ve been dealt.

So what do these stories of the people of Israel and a singer with physical problems have to do with us, especially on this Sunday when we begin our annual pledge campaign?

We may believe that as much as we love this wonderful parish, we are beset with limitations. We are hindered by “shoulds” – we should have more people, we should have more programs, we should do something different. The “shoulds” get in the way of all the wonderful things that we are, by the grace of God, and that we might become with the grace of God. This is a place with many gifts, and many possibilities. We do not have to imitate other churches that seem, on their face, to have greater success than we do based on earthly standards. We can be the best “us” that we can be, and bloom radiantly in who we are and what gifts we have and the place in which we are planted. If we only focus on the “shoulds” instead of our own unique hopes and possibilities, we will always be dissatisfied. But if we make a conscious decision to be ourselves, and be the best of ourselves, to the glory of God, then marvelous things will happen. To do this as God hopes that we will, it takes your practical support. That means your time, your talents, and your money. And to do this best, you will give, not because you think God will be unhappy if you don’t, but because you know that God rejoices when you live into his love by sharing it to help strengthen the Body of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom. And the result of that, we hope, will be deeper relationship with Christ, joy in serving Him, and the welcoming of other folks who want a little of that joy that you feel.

So bloom where you’re planted, in this wonderful place, and work together with the hand we’ve been dealt to fulfill God’s promise. Don’t let the word “should” or “can’t” distract you from God’s possibilities incarnated in you and in this place. Deal with it, and rejoice!


[1] Stephen Moss, “I’m lucky. Everyone can see my disability”, The Guardian, 20 October 2000.

[2] Ibid.

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