Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14, Psalm 23, Mark 4:35-41
As we continue our journey through the book of Jeremiah, we have now come to the part in the book where the Israelites have been exiled. They have experienced the consequences of their behavior, and they are now in Babylon, away from their home against their will, separated from the temple, lost and unable to return home. They are in the pain. But in that place of pain, of suffering, or struggle, God’s word is still coming to them. God is still with them, and now God’s word is one of great comfort. But also, one that may not be exactly what they want to hear.
God promises the community, and again it is very important here that this is the community of Israelites, the people of Israel and Judah that God is talking to, not individuals, but the community, that things will be better. God promises that they will return to their home. This exile is not forever. This time of alienation and struggle is not eternal. There will be a time of renewal. God also promises and reassures them that in the meantime, even in their exile, God is still present with them.
But the other side of this is that this is a future promise. God tells them “things will be better in 70 years.” They will be able to return home in 70 years!! 70 years was a full generation. It was a number that meant “completion” or wholeness. And again, this is part of how we know this promise is not for individuals, but for the large community. None of those to whom God is now speaking will be alive to experience this return home. None of those in despair and pain will live to see their return. God even goes so far as to tell them they must ignore their hopes, ignore their dreams, ignore those who are prophesying for a return home to come in their life times.
And I think, post-COVID, we can relate to this in a tiny way. When COVID first hit, we all hoped it would be over in a couple weeks. We would shut down and then in a couple weeks we’d be able to get back to normal. The kids would go on early spring break for school, but they would return, surely, after just a couple weeks! When that didn’t happen, it was, “well, they’ll be able to go back in the fall.” And then, “in the spring”. We kept putting our hopes on tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. But sometimes having those hopes for the near future makes the disappointment greater. It is easier to fall into despair when our hopes are being continually dashed. So, Jeremiah warns against that. “No. It won’t be tomorrow or even in your lifetime.”
But perhaps an even bigger issue is that when we have hopes that are imminent for a major change, for the possibility of renewal and a return to what is familiar or comforting or what we believe was “whole” for us, we often forget to live now. We put it off. “We will do that when things get back to normal.” We will fix this, or go there, or see that person, or call that person, or heal that relationship, or work on our issues “when things get back to normal.”
And God through Jeremiah challenges this. Jeremiah tells us that God’s call for us is clear, “Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” In other words, LIVE. Don’t put off living until you are able to return home, or return “to normal”. Live now. Do the things of living in this place and in this time. We are called to preach the Good News, to live in faith, to do the work of our lives whether we are “in season” or “out of season”. This was a very long “out of season” for the Israelites. And while God called them not to just be okay with where they were in life but instead to continue to hope and trust in a future that was better, even while they were doing that, still they were called to live.
I want you to try to picture this. These exiles were “forced immigrants”. They were forced to be in another culture, in another place, away from their home and in terrible circumstances. Think about the Africans who were brought here against their will: forced immigrants in this place. Generations later, do they feel at home here? Are they still experiencing discrimination? You can still be an exile in your own country, the country of your birth if you are not respected and treated equally. And this was the experience of these Israelites for 70 years. That is a hard, hard place to be. And it is to all exiles that this message of a future hope is spoken, but also a message of “live your lives NOW.”
In the Church, big C, as we look at the shrinking numbers of people who identify as Christian, we often talk about the church, especially perhaps mainstream or progressive Christianity, as being in a wilderness time. But the reality is that it is much more accurate to say that we are in exile. In the wilderness there aren’t established institutions, everyone is wandering around, without grounding, without a sense of direction. But when you are in exile, you are in another culture’s space, story and institutions. Those around you do have grounding, are “at home”, and do have a sense of meaning, purpose and direction. We have moved into a time of exile, as progressive Church, a time when the predominant culture goes two ways: into either a rejection of faith all together, or into a more fundamentalist stance. As people who fit into neither position, we are in exile. Part of how we know this is that it is when you are in exile that those in the dominant positions of the culture are given permission and it is even seen as “normal” for them to define who others are. The fundamentalists define us as not being “real” Christians, of getting it wrong. And the atheists or those of other faiths, or even those who define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” assume that even we in this building are fundamentalists and treat us as such. Neither group is open to hearing something different. Those in power have the power to define, and to insist that their definitions are the only ones worth attending to. And so we are in exile, boxed, labelled and in many ways rejected.
This last weekend I was outside watering my plants when a neighbor that I’m generally friendly with passed by. She had a baby a year ago and I was telling her that I would like to buy some of my favorite child-books for her daughter. Her response was “Well, we don’t want any religious books.” I was stunned, to be honest. I’m not good on my feet, but if I had been I would have asked if, since she’s a lawyer, all the books she gives her kids are all about laws, and the legal system. Later that same day, I had a second experience like that. Someone who had asked me to teach their child some basic piano skills wanted to be sure that I wasn’t going to teach their child “Christian music”. These are neighbors who know that we are at THIS church, where we fly a flag of inclusion, where they hired ME, a divorced and remarried female as a pastor! But part of being in exile is that people in the dominant culture do not bother to feel they have to get to know you. They do not feel they need to understand you. They can ascribe to you and put on you all kinds of assumptions and if you argue against those assumptions, they will, more likely than not, assume you are LYING or hiding the truth.
I remember when we were in Canada and I was wearing a CVPC t-shirt. A lesbian couple got into the elevator with us, saw my shirt and immediately began to talk loudly with one another about how horrible and judgmental Christians are. We didn’t know them, I didn’t engage the conversation, I understand why they believed that, but it again showed that assumptions made about us are manifold. And do not apply to the folk here at this church.
This is what it is to be in exile: to be strangers in a culture that is not your own. But we cannot go back. And the myth of “the good old days” is exactly that: a great big myth. I would hope that we don’t really want to return to a time of slavery, or Jim Crow laws. I certainly don’t want to return to a time, not much more than 50 years ago, when women could not BE pastors. That nostalgic glorifying of the past is never of the true story.
But like in the Mark passage for today, when things become difficult, when things become stormy and those waves of trouble and tribulation are threatening, people forget that they had goal of getting somewhere specific, of sailing to the other side, or traveling to a specific place with a specific hope and goal for the future. Instead, they replace this goal with the goal of basic survival, of simply staying afloat. We are not called to just survive. We are not called, out of fear, to put down living until things can “return” to what they were. We are called to remember that in our frantic running around, trying to “survive” as a church, that Jesus is still in the boat, probably “in the way” even – something that cannot be ignored or overlooked as we trip over him to try to trim the sails. He is there, calling for our attention and our focus, asking us to remember our call to LIVE, no matter what the circumstances are that we may face.
The Good News it manifold. There will be a time when we will no longer be in exile. God is with us no matter what is going on with us. The journey is bigger and longer and more beautiful than we can imagine. And we are called into life THIS day. We are invited to live NOW. None of that may be easy. Living in exile is a challenge. But it teaches us compassion and understanding for those of our brothers and sisters who are also in exile. For those who are suffering, for those who are treated as less than, for those rejected and oppressed by society. We are invited to learn in our exile, to live in our exile, to continue the journey and not just simply focus on survival. Thanks be to God. Amen.