Jeremiah 29:4-11 (NRSV)

I’ve always been a big fan of words. I find them fascinating. One of my favorite memories of my father was of the two of us pouring over the family dictionary together. I’d come up with a word I didn’t know, and Dad would say, “Well, let’s look it up together.” I always got a kick out of that. We’d start with the word, then go on to synonyms and antonyms and colloquial expressions. All these years later, I still enjoy poking around in a good dictionary.

So, this morning, with your indulgence, I’d like to do a little word study with you. How familiar are you with the word “Druthers”? This is not a word I remember hearing growing up. In my family, it wasn’t the kind of word I would have heard either. My parents were real sticklers for proper English. We were just a little bit snobby that way. My friends would have understood me perfectly if I had said, “I ain’t gonna play with you no more if you don’t gimmie back my yo-yo.” My mother, however, would not have been amused. She sometimes reminded me of Rex Harrison, in My Fair Lady, when he sings, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” “Druthers,” would not have passed muster in my family. Though it does appear in the dictionary. It’s listed as “colloquial.”

I don’t remember exactly when I did first hear about druthers, but it turns out to be a lot more common than I would have thought. A quick search on the Internet produced tons of entries. There are Druthers baseball cards, songs, CD’s and books (one called “Mother’s Druthers.”) There is a Druthers Restaurant, a Druthers soft drink company, a Druthers Brewing company, a Druthers Band, and a Druthers Screenplay, starring Fred Druthers, who is described as “a ten-years-past-burnt-out high school guidance counselor. He hates the school, hates the kids, hates the faculty. But above all, he hates his ex-wife.” It sounds like a play I druther skip.

The word druthers means “choice” or “preference.” It’s almost always found in the phrase “to have one’s druthers.” It’s a shortened form of “I would rather,” with the “rather” given a southern drawl: “ruther.” In its early history, druthers was primarily a southernism. But now the word is common everywhere, and, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, it is used more frequently among speakers having a college education.” Take that Mom!

In all my poking around on the internet though, I didn’t exactly find what I was looking for. There are many places that talk about the phrase, “if I had my druthers,” but that’s not the way I first heard it. I first heard it after I met Pam’s family. In her family, it was common to talk about “living in your druthers.” There’s a world of difference between these two phrases. When we use “druthers’ in the sense of choice, it simply means that we would prefer one thing over another. If the dessert choices are cake or pie, I’d druther have pie. If you need someone to work on Thursday or Friday, I’d druther take Thursday, so I can have a longer weekend. In the musical Lil’ Abner, there is a song in which Abner sings, “If I had my druthers, I’d druther have my druthers than anything else I know.” In other words, I prefer to make my own choices.

But “living in your druthers” is different. It means to live our lives continually wishing that things were somehow other than the way they actually are. I’d druther things were like they used to be. I’d druther this day was over. I’d druther be rich, famous and talented. I’d druther have a waterfront house, without paying higher taxes. (Good luck with that.) I’d druther be fishing, skiing, sailing, hiking or anything other than what I’m doing at the moment. I’d druther the preacher would get to the point. Yes, well, that’s what we call “living in your druthers,” and I chose the story from Jeremiah this morning because it provides a good example.

First, let me give you a little background. In Jeremiah’s time, about six hundred years before Jesus, Babylon was the great military power in the world, much as the US is today. Israel was a vassal state, required to pay tribute to Babylon in order to keep from being crushed. Of course, this didn’t sit very well with the Israelites, and they were continually rebelling and plotting ways to throw off the yoke of oppression. Finally, the oppressor had had enough. The Babylonian army marched into the Holy Land and, in two great waves of deportation, about ten years apart, they carried the Israelites off into exile.

The scripture passage I just read to you is part of a letter written by Jeremiah from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon. The letter was written between these two deportations, which is why Jeremiah was still in Jerusalem at the time. Apparently, about four years had gone by since the first wave of exiles had been taken away. Apparently, there was some political unrest among the Babylonian leadership, which made some of the exiles think they had a chance to foment rebellion and escape back to Israel. Jeremiah’s letter suggests that some of the exiles actually tried to escape and were killed for their efforts.

The essential message in Jeremiah’s letter was this: Do not fight against your exile. You are in Babylon because God wants you there. It was the failure of your faithfulness which led God to allow the Babylonians to destroy Israel. Now is our time of judgment. Now is our time for repentance, and it isn’t going to end any time soon. Most of you will not see Israel again. But do not despair, and do not rebel. God has not abandoned you. Make lives for yourselves in your captivity. Build houses. Plant gardens. Have families. Seek the welfare of the city of Babylon, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Wow. That is a striking message. Seek the welfare of your tormentors and oppressors. Imagine someone sending a letter like that to the enslaved people in our own country in the nineteenth century south. Do not rebel. Make lives for yourselves in your captivity. Seek the welfare of your oppressors. Somehow, I don’t think it would have gone over all that well. And this same objection always comes up when I lead Bible study classes that cover Jeremiah’s period of history. There is always someone who is very uncomfortable with the idea that God was using Babylon to punish Israel.

Personally, I don’t like the idea much myself. But historically, there is something in what the prophet says that we have to understand. As far as the Israelites were concerned, God was the all-powerful ruler and protector of Israel. When the Babylonians attacked, they weren’t simply attacking the country or the people, they were attacking Israel’s God, Yahweh. Clearly, Israel lost. And when that happened, the people were in danger of losing their faith as well. Why would anyone in Israel want to worship Yahweh, if the gods of Babylon were more powerful? Well, they wouldn’t. No one wanted to worship a loser; a second-rate god. When Israel lost the war with Babylon, the exiles were in danger of losing their faith in the God of Israel. But what Jeremiah said was not, now that we’ve lost, you should just be good slaves. What he said was, much as it might seem otherwise, God did not lose to the Babylonians. God simply used Babylon to bring Israel’s infidelities to an end. Now, that’s a pretty tough message to swallow. But the fact is that if Jeremiah had not interpreted the exile to his people in this way, it would have spelled the end of the Israelite religion. There would have been no Judaism, and, of course, no Christianity either.

Jeremiah’s letter is striking for another reason as well. What a stunning message it is to say to people who have lost friends and family members, whose homes have been destroyed, who have been dragged off into exile in a foreign land, that they should seek the welfare of their captor’s city. Can you imagine, for instance, Osama Bin Laden preaching that message? On the contrary. Before he was captured, maybe you remember, he used to put out these messages on the internet. Fight to the last man, with your last ounce of strength. With your last breath. Never give up. Never surrender. The idea that we should seek the welfare of our enemies would have been anathema to him. But, that’s exactly what Jeremiah was preaching. And of course, that was Jesus’ message as well. We should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s a very difficult message to practice. But nonetheless, it is the message of our faith.

Jeremiah saw clearly that there was nothing to be gained by further conflict. So, he tells the exiles not to live in rebellion against the way things are. His message is, essentially, don’t live in your druthers. Don’t live in your desire that things had turned out differently. Rather, live right where you are, in Babylon. Live there fully, deeply and faithfully, for your welfare is bound up with the welfare of that city, and you cannot have one without the other.

My friends, we need to be very clear here. God is not using our current health crisis to punish us. That is one part of Jeremiah’s message that absolutely does not apply to us. What does apply is that, right at the moment, many of us are living in our druthers; wishing that we didn’t have to deal with this Covid-19 virus, wishing we didn’t have to practice social distancing, wishing we could get back to business as usual. And that’s completely understandable. None of us saw this coming back when we were celebrating Christmas and the New Year. It’s already gone on for months and there’s no end in sight. But, much as we might wish things were different, living in our druthers isn’t going to help.

And that was true long before this all started. In a sense, we are all exiles in this world in one way or another. We are all cut off from our true home, which is why Jeremiah’s message still speaks to us. We all wish that we could change many of the things that are given to us in this life. Some things we can change but some we can’t. As the serenity prayer puts it, we certainly pray for the courage to change what we can. But we also need the serenity to accept what can’t be changed. And the wisdom to know the difference is basically about not living in our druthers. Accepting what we can’t change, living the best lives we have open to us, regardless of the circumstances.

And, the truth is, most of us need to learn this lesson over and over, usually the hard way. I remember when I was in the Coast Guard, some of the guys were pretty unhappy about being there. Truth be told, I wasn’t all that happy myself. But some of them would make up what we called a “short timer’s chain.” They’d buy a length of chain and count out one link for every day they had left in the service. Then, every day would begin by cutting off one link from the chain. I always thought that was bad idea. It always kept the focus on, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here.”

When I got out, I thought I’d left all of that behind me. But a few years into my ministry, I met a guy who became a colleague of mine. The first time we met I remember saying something like, “So, tell me about yourself.” The first thing out of his mouth, no kidding, was, “I have 1252 days left in ministry.” I thought to myself, “Oh boy. You are in big trouble.” I’ve lost track of him over the years, so I can’t say how his ministry played out. But I know one thing for sure. We can’t be happy if we spend all of our time wishing we were somewhere else.

Living in our druthers only leads to misery. Somehow, as hard as it may be, we have to learn to embrace the givens of our lives, the things we can’t change, and do the best we can under the circumstances. We have to learn to say “Yes” to the realities we might rather to say “no” to. We have to learn to embrace the truth, that this is the day the Lord has made. So that we can truly, rejoice and be glad in it.

Amen.

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