Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
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On the one hand, none of us can really know what it was like for God’s people living in exile in Babylon. Sure, we might have found ourselves living somewhere we didn’t expect, maybe even someplace we didn’t pick, a posting or deployment for service in the military, or a corporate relocation. But even then, we understand that such moves are part of the bargain, that at some level it’s something that we had a hand in choosing at one point in time. For the people living in exile in Babylon, there had been no choice, just their forced march far from home to a foreign land. At one point the Psalmist gives voice to their predicament, lamenting, “By the rivers of Babylon- there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Babylon was the geo-political super power of its day, and when its army came calling it was always bad news. They would start by laying siege to major cities like Jerusalem, cutting of their supply lines for essentials like food and fresh water until the people were too weak and desperate to put up much of a fight when their wall was breeched. Once inside, the army set fire to the city and plundered what wealth it could, taking with them human collateral. On their way out of town they would then salt the fields, destroying any hope of growing crops for years to come. Such devastation, such destruction and dislocation doesn’t tend to endear people to you. So not only did the exiled people of God lose their home and their land; but they suddenly found themselves living among the very people who had done all of that to them. You begin to understand why it is that they wept.
We have no comparable experience to something like that. We have no real comprehension of trauma on that kind of scale. But we do know what it is to be under siege. Maybe not in the sense of a military blockade, but in the sense of feeling cut off, in the sense of feeling surrounded by people who are hostile to our being- the person, or people who have decided that we don’t belong, the teacher, boss, neighbor who wants us gone. Or maybe it isn’t quite that aggressive. Maybe it’s just feeling like everyone wants a piece of us, wants us to go here, do that, give this, until it feels like we’re left with nothing for ourselves, nothing left of ourselves. And when our defenses weaken and the wall gets breached we know that we’re on our way to losing something significant- not just what we have, but our sense of who we are. The next thing you know, we are carried away by it. Carried away by the demands, carried away by the responsibilities, carried away by those same forces that broke us down and took away whatever sense we might have had about our place and purpose in the world. We might know something about that. We might know something about exile.
Exile is as a much a spiritual condition as it is a physical one. Because just like the people weeping by the rivers of Babylon, what is lost isn’t just our home, or our land, or even just who we are. What is lost is the very thing that undergirds all of it, what theologian Paul Tillich called the Ground of Being itself; what feels lost is God. If the land on which we live comes to us from the generous hand of God, if our sense of home is imbued with the understanding that part of what makes it home is the fact that God is dwelling there with us, if our very sense of self is one mediated by an awareness that we are who God makes us; then when all of that is stripped away from us, when all of that is gone, it is only natural to assume that God has been stripped away too, or that God has abandoned us. And the spiritual condition of exile doesn’t require our physical relocation at the hands of a hostile foreign army to be devastating. Sometimes you don’t have to go anywhere at all. One day you wake up and realize that where you are is not where you belong, that the neighborhood has changed and all the familiar landmarks are gone. I wonder if that isn’t what it feels like for our Pueblo and Navajo brothers and sisters who lived on this land long before we came along, only to find themselves in the place they had always called home, but living in a kind of exile. Or the families that are descended from the Spanish land grants who will tell you that they didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them. What do you do in a situation like that? What do you do when everything that was always so familiar suddenly seems so strange? What do you do when the very people who you think have taken away your way of life, are your neighbors?
For some folks the solution is to retreat, to pull back into the shell of their own kind, their own tribe; to self-select ourselves into circles of the like-minded and build walls of protection against the people who don’t share our story, don’t share our language, don’t share our experience. In one respect the people of God had plenty of experience with that. Jerusalem had a wall for that very reason, because the people felt they had to protect themselves from the nations that surrounded them. But they had learned the hard way that walls like that invite a kind of aggression. Walls like that signal a hostility that will ultimately be met and matched. Walls like that literally draw the line between us and them. And one of the stories that will emerge from this exile among those who ultimately are allowed to return is that the line hadn’t been drawn well enough. One of the stories that will get told about this moment in the people’s history is that they had grown too lax about the foreign influences that had made their way into the city, allowed foreign deities, lesser gods, to find a place in the Temple that was meant for God and God alone. Exile is where that narrative develops. Exile is where we begin to blame our spiritual desolation on someone else. We point to the other and conclude that they are the reason that God has left us, they are the ones who have somehow cast God out. But as the sociologist Brené Brown has observed, “blame is the discharge of an unpleasant emotion.” Meaning that blame is what we do when we don’t like the way we are feeling. Rather than taking responsibility for our own feelings, we assign that responsibility to someone else. We say it is the fault of those people, the people responsible for our exile, the people responsible for our pain. In exile we turn ourselves inward and cast the blame outward, and begin to make our world smaller and more manageable so that we don’t have to feel the things that we are feeling.
That’s what makes this word of the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah so important. First, God says something truly disturbing, but critically important. God speaks to, “the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” If you’re an exile nursing a grudge against the Babylonians for carrying you far away from everything familiar, it’s got to be something of a shock to hear that it was God and not that mighty army that did this terrible thing to you. As a general rule, I don’t tend to care for this sort of thing. I don’t know anyone who does. I don’t like the idea that God would cast God’s people out in such a punitive way. But then again, I don’t like anyone who makes me stop and take a time out because my behavior has gotten out of control. Sadly, sometimes, that is what it takes to get our attention. Sometimes we need the time out that exile creates to see something we just weren’t seeing, to appreciate just what it is that we have lost.
But second, and perhaps more importantly, what God says to these exiled people is that this is not the end; that as difficult and painful as our exiles may be, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be fruitful too. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t go on living. There’s an apocryphal quote credited to Martin Luther that nevertheless rings true. “Even if I knew the world would fall to pieces tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.” Rather than pine of the past, or give up on the future, the word of the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah encourages God’s people to build houses and live in them, to plant gardens and eat what they produce. Meaning, you’re gonna be there awhile. The exiles that we find ourselves in whether they are personal, cultural, or otherwise may be less than ideal, but God would have us grow where we are planted, to thrive where we find ourselves especially when circumstances tempt us to retreat from the world around us and to give up on where we are at. And those people, the ones from whom they would wall themselves off- God encourages them to marry instead, and produce offspring, and in turn give those offspring in marriage as well. In short, they and we who find ourselves in exile are called to multiply and not decrease, to make ourselves larger and not smaller. We are called to do so because building houses and planting gardens, crossing cultural lines to marry and give our children in marriage are all for the good, for the welfare of the place in which we find ourselves. Or as the Chinese proverb puts it, “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Better to seek the welfare, the common good of the people we live with than it is to draw lines and do battle. It isn’t enough to think solely in terms of what is best for us, to take care of our own. What exile teaches God’s people, what exile teaches us, is that what is best for all those around us- the ones of like mind and the ones who are different- is what is best for us. That to take care of others is to take care of our own because we all belong to each other. Instead of trying to reclaim a past that is gone, instead of looking to the horizon for what may, or may not come to pass, we are called to attend to where we find ourselves regardless of how we got there and to bear witness to God’s goodness in that place too by thriving, by multiplying, by seeking what is good for all, by seeking God’s blessing on it all, knowing that to do so- that as we become God’s blessing- we too will be blessed in turn. Alleluia, amen.