In today’s reading from the Old Testament (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7) the people of Israel are living in exile. It’s not what they wanted. They didn’t choose to go. They were forcibly sent from Jerusalem to Babylon and their lives will be forever changed. Sometimes life gives us what we neither wanted nor chose.
I suspect we’ve all experienced life in exile. Sometimes, but not always, exile is an external reality involving a geographical move, but it is always an inner condition that reveals itself in our alienation from ourselves, one another, and God. It’s a type of homelessness and it’s more about the condition of the human heart than it is a geographical location. You don’t have to leave home to live in exile.
What do you imagine it was like for the people of Israel living in exile? If it would be helpful in answering that question think about you own times of exile. What was your experience like? What did you feel? What questions were you asking?
Here’s what I imagine it might have been like:
- It felt like their world had been completely upended and life was no longer like it used to be. They had lost all that was familiar and routine.
- They felt overwhelmed and powerless, lost and confused.
- They wanted to know how this could have happened to them and where God was. How could God let this happen? Why didn’t God do something?
- Maybe they no longer knew what they believed about God, life, or themselves. Everything had been called into question. Who are we now? Where can we place our trust? How do move forward?
- I’ll bet they were asking questions that have no good or acceptable answers. I’ll bet they wanted someone or something to fix it and make it all better.
- I wouldn’t be surprised if they started arguing and fighting with each other, and looking for someone to blame. There probably was conflict and mistrust.
- Some were fearful and hyper-vigilant about what might happen next.
- Others were angry and fighting back.
- Some probably identified with their wounds and losses and were ready to give up and just go along to get along.
- I’m sure their hearts were broken and filled with deep sorrow and grief. There were tears and wailing.
- They just wanted to go home and get back to normal.
- They surely were exhausted and worn out physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Does any of that sound familiar to you? Do you recognize any of that in your life today? In Uvalde? In our nation?
The Babylonian Exile isn’t just an historical event, it’s a description of the human experience. And I think it’s what we are experiencing today. We are in exile. We didn’t choose it. We didn’t want it but that’s where we are.
That’s what I said about two weeks ago when I spoke at a session of the Congressional Children’s Caucus held in Uvalde. They wanted to hear about life in Uvalde after the mass shooting of May 24th.
I said that we are a community in exile. We’ve lost our home. We’re wandering in a wilderness of grief, anger, division, and mistrust. I told the Representatives what I’ve said to you before and will probably say again.
I told them that I don’t want us to return to life as it was. I want us to move forward in a way that makes a difference. I want us to struggle with the deeper and more difficult questions. I don’t want us to settle for doing only the obviously right things – give financial assistance, provide counseling, build a new school, and hold some individuals accountable. While those things are right and necessary they are only the beginning.
If that’s all we do and nothing else changes about gun violence, bullying, racism, poverty, the well-being of children and families, to mention just a few things, we will not only have lost twenty-two lives, we will have lost our humanity.
The risk in exile is that we lose our humanity. I think that’s what Jeremiah is addressing in his letter to the exiles.
Please don’t think this is about only what happened in Uvalde on May 24th. This is about the many places of and people in exile across our country and throughout the world. We go to Babylon in all sorts of ways. What happened here, while new and particular to us, was just another expression of our estrangement.
How, then, are we to live in this exile? Listen to what Jeremiah says: build houses, plant gardens, create new life, multiply and do not divide. What does that look like and mean for us today? Jeremiah is not simply saying, “Bloom where you are planted” or “When life gives you lemons make lemonade.” He’s talking about how we keep or even recover our humanity. And it begins with some self-reflection.
What are we building and planting today? What new life are we creating? And what are we multiplying? There are choices to be made and some are better than others. Some choices will bring light to the darkness. Other choices will widen our estrangement.
Don’t take those images literally. Let them provoke your imagination, kindle hope, and offer a vision for the future.
What if we built houses of mercy, compassion, justice, and peace? What if we planted gardens of forgiveness, reconciliation, trust? What if we created a new life that welcomed and respected the dignity of every human being? What if we multiplied love, courage, and truth?
That’s not a to-do list. They are not tasks to be completed. They are to be our daily practices, our way of being with and for one another. They are our way to a new homeland. Building, planting, creating, multiplying are our way home.
Don’t you want to go home?
Image Credit: Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash
Thank you from Arabella Norton in England. I want to read this sermon with my 15 year old son who has been living in an “inner exile” with me at home as part of our healing process from the loneliness he experienced during the Covid lockdown. I pray that your words may speak to his heart. Thank you for your wisdom.