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Dear Cherished Ones!
a sermon based on Jeremiah 29:1,4-7
by Rev, Heather McCance

The couple had been trying to have a child for years. They’d been to fertility specialists aplenty, and spent an enormous amount of money, but still there was no child. Yet they refused to give up. Something deep inside both of them told them that they should be parents. They got angry, often, at God. How could God do this to them? It was particularly difficult, because as the wife said, they both had always wanted to have a large family, they both always felt that they would be good parents. How was it that so many people who didn’t seem to care about their kids at all were allowed to be parents when they were denied the gift of children?

They prayed and they prayed, and waited and waited. One day, an extraordinary combination of circumstances took place. They were in church, and the preacher was talking about living out the calling that God has for each one of us. The preacher was quoting an author named Frederick Buechner, who wrote that God’s calling comes when our deepest desires and the world’s deepest needs come together. That same Sunday, there was an announcement in the church bulletin from the local Children’s Aid Society looking for people willing to become foster parents. And later that day, they saw a piece in the newspaper about a family who had fostered some 56 children over the years, and how fulfilling it had been.

The husband and wife looked at one another, said a prayer that they were right, and made the call. After the screening and the training, they took in a family of two sisters and a brother whose single mother was an alcoholic and unable to look after the kids. It was really, really hard sometimes. The kids took a long time adjusting to a new home and a new school, and had been so used to doing whatever they wanted that discipline was really difficult. But with time and patience, and a great deal of love, this childless couple and the three children became a real family in every way that counted.

And the couple was right. They were great parents. And since they couldn’t have their own children, the wife said, it seemed to her that God had found another way.

When we’re past a tragedy and looking back on it, it’s amazing how we can so often see the hand of God at work. But when we’re in the middle of the hard times, it’s nearly impossible. When we’re sure that path A is the only right way to go even though there’s a huge wall built up that bars the way, it’s amazing how God can work around the wall, and create a path B that leads in a completely new direction.

The people of Judah had always believed that being in Israel, being in Jerusalem, was holy. It was the land God had promised to their ancestors, it was the land their forebears received from God when they’d been rescued from slavery in Egypt. And so when the army of Babylon overran them in 587 BCE and carried them off into exile in Babylon, they despaired. How could they sing the songs of God in a foreign land? How could they be the people of God if they weren’t in the land of God? They could no longer worship in the Temple, they could no longer bring their sacrifice and offerings to the priests there. They’d lost their homes, their way of life, their God.

So God told Jeremiah to write a letter to these exiled, homesick people now relocated somewhere in Babylon, and we heard part of that letter this morning. And God, through Jeremiah, said to them, "Don’t worry. You’re still my people and I Am your God. Yes, I allowed a great evil to come upon you, because I have given to all my children the gift of free will and the armies of Babylon chose to use that gift in a horrible way, ripping you away from all that you’ve ever known. The path you thought your lives were taking is blocked off, but I am giving you another way, and this way, too, will work."

So, Jeremiah wrote, life must go. "You’re going to be here for awhile, so start living again. Plant crops, build houses, get married and have children, life your lives in faithfulness to God in a new land. And pray for the welfare of your new home, even though it is the home of your enemy." The Hebrew word for "welfare" here is the word "shalom," a word that means peace and justice and prosperity and well-being and contentment all rolled together. So pray for shalom, even for this city of your enemies, because when this city has shalom you who now live here will also have shalom.

And that’s what the people of Israel did. They settled down in their new land, and developed new ways to worship God. They couldn’t get to the Temple anymore, so they built synagogues. The priests couldn’t offer sacrifices anymore, so they became primarily teachers, rabbis. And the words of God in the Ark of the Covenant had been lost, and so they wrote down the words of the covenant and the stories of God’s work amongst their ancestors, and these became the books of the Old Testament.

They must have wondered how God was going to keep the promise that one day they would return to Judah, that they would worship in Jerusalem again But this is the same God who rescued a rag-tag bunch of slaves from the wealth and power of Egypt. And God came through again, some 70 years later, and inspired the new king of Babylon to simply let the Judeans go home.

Path A had been blocked by human action, by human sin. But God created a detour, and the people in faith followed. And the detour came back around to where God wanted the people to be.

God is a great storyteller, telling the stories of our lives. And God is a romantic; likes happy endings and happily-ever-afters. But human sin and the free will we’ve all been given sometimes means that the happily-ever-afters are hard to get to. God would sometimes prefer us to zig when we choose to zag. But God is still the author of the story, even when we characters are not terribly cooperative. God still tries to shape the story towards an ending where all the characters will know shalom, will know peace and prosperity and well-being.

And that includes characters like George W. Bush and it includes characters like Osama bin Laden, it includes characters like you and me, for whatever the sins we commit, God loves each and every one of us poor human creatures. God wants us all to live in shalom.

In the midst of crisis, it’s sometimes hard to see the paths that God wants us to take. Path A would be best, but there’s a wall there. God then provides Path B, but sometimes we insist on bushwhacking out a Path C, somewhere God never wanted us to go. But God comes along with us, and keeps trying to push us back on the path. Sometimes we get so focussed on where we think we ought to be going, trying to bash a hole in the wall blocking Path A, we are unable to see the detour God is offering in Path B.

That couple who wanted to become parents were completely focused on Path A, unable to see any other option. The people of Judah had hit the wall on Path A and sat down and stopped moving at all for discouragement.

Let us pray for our world and for ourselves, that we will keep our eyes and our hearts wide open. Let us pray that when our way ahead is blocked, God will lead us onto a new path, and that we will have the courage and faith to follow, that God can bring all our stories to a happy ending of shalom. Amen.