EXILE: Making Meaning in the Meantime
A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
When I was seven, my father brought home a puppy; a beautiful tan Cocker Spaniel with long, wavy, satin ears. For some reason, we named him Nickels. Very quickly, he became my playmate, my confidante, my best friend.
He was also a naughty dog. He would escape from the yard, sending my brother and me wildly chasing after him through the neighborhood. He could be a little unruly. He ate the tuna salad my mom made for lunch. And one day I came home from school and my mother told me that my dad had taken my beloved Nickles to “a farm” where “he’d have more room to run.”
When you are exiled, you are banished or separated from some thing or some place, either voluntarily or by force. Not only dogs, but people are exiled: Napoleon sent from France to the island of Crete; the Dalai Lama escaping from the Chinese invasion of Tibet to India; three American hikers jailed in Iran.
And each of us has our own exiles, our own separations. We can be separated from home because of war or our jobs, estranged from our families by wrenching disagreements; exiled from economic security by job loss or dwindling retirement funds. We can be exiled by illness, addiction, disability, and age to live a life far different from the one we had.
We can feel exiled from the popular culture, so driven by youth worship, consumerism, and greed, or from the days of more civil political discourse. We can even feel exiled from our church as we pine for what was, feel separated from what is, and grow impatient for what will be.
Enter the prophet Jeremiah, with some profound suggestions for us in our own private and collective exiles.
He lived 600 years before birth of Christ, at a time when the Israelites were under the whip of the Babylonians. Along with Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, Jeremiah is acknowledged as a major prophet by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And because our Jewish brothers and sisters have kept their Scriptures alive for over 3,000 years, as Christians today we are privileged to learn from his powerful witness. Our first reading for many Sundays now has been from Jeremiah. He wrote two books of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Lamentations.
People who have suffered identify with Jeremiah. The artist Michelangelo did not want to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was a sculptor and wanted to remain one. But “The Warrior Pope,” Julius II saw a painting Michelangelo did for a friend and for 28 years held him hostage to completing his pet project. You didn’t say no to a pope. So when he painted the portrait of the suffering Jeremiah on the ceiling of the Chapel, Michelangelo used himself as the model.
Much later, when Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930’s, pushing his “Jewish solution,” the Russian-French Jewish painter Marc Chagall, used himself as the model for his portraits of Jeremiah. Michelangelo and Chagall both saw a kindred spirit in Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. (1)
Jeremiah writes to a community of exiles: the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon in 600 B.C. was a time of great suffering for the Chosen people.
But Jeremiah also writes for us today. “The Weeping Prophet” tells us what to do besides weep when we are lost, exiled, and torn away from what we love. Not that weeping is unimportant. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus. People weep when they visit Auschwitz and see the hundreds of eyeglasses and shoes of all sizes once belonging to those who perished in the ovens; or at the site of 911 or at the Vietnam Memorial. As Jeremiah would say, woe to us when we are unable to weep and respond to the victims of unconscionable evil, torture, oppression and greed.
In last week’s lesson, Jeremiah said this: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles…, from Jerusalem in Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…. Multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7).
Well, that’s pretty clear: in exile, continue to live your lives as normally as you can. Build houses – take root where you have been transplanted. Marry and raise your families. Don’t shrink into less than you have been.
In other words, focus less on the separation and the losses and more on living. Refuse to be defined by your illnesses, your losses, the lack of, or the belief that things can never be as good as before...
“All we lack,” says the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, “is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are now.” (2)
There is healing in chopping wood and carrying water, in living a day at a time and discerning the specific gifts and insights the day holds. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “There are people all over the world who know how helpless you are feeling right now. Plenty of them would trade places with you in a minute to be sitting in a place where there are no bombs going off, no guns being fired. If you listen to these people they may be able to convince you that the odds of hour survival are very, very good.” Even in exile.
Incredibly, Jeremiah says that we must pray to the Lord for the welfare of the place where we are in exile – and may not want to be! Pray for Babylon, when you want to be in Jerusalem. Pray for this nation, when it has deprived you of a job. Pray for those who love you now — when what you really want the ones who loved you before. Pray for St. John’s as it is now, in all of the glorious imperfection of this interim period.
However, at this moment at St. John’s, we are not in exile. While it may feel that way with our previous rector’s retirement, and the loss of all those things that only Frank could do in the way that Frank did them, we are not separated or estranged from the things here that matter most: worship of God and community with each other. Of course, leadership is critical, but we are a community of faith; how we live out this community day by day is as important as who’s at the helm.
The larger Church is in peril. The Catholic Church is closing 20 parishes in the Twin Cities. A Muslin imam was censured by his superiors for participating in an interfaith dialogue in Minneapolis. We are so fortunate to be in this church community, with so many resources it takes my breath away. And Jeremiah reminds us not to diminish our efforts — our attendance our commitment, our support — but to increase them.
So pray for the leadership we have now, because we need your prayers and support. Pray for our interim rectors. Pray for the wonderful ministries and programs that are thriving here now. Pray for patience and energy for yourself, not to put yourself into a self-imposed exile until things “get back to normal.” Ultimately, you are the church; you are St. John’s. Together, we will make meaning in the meantime.
Remember: our bottom line is that we are followers of Jesus, and in this community rebirth and resurrection is the bottom line.
Thirty-three miners in Chile, trapped a half a mile underground for 39 days emerged from the depths of the earth safe and unharmed This is not only a triumph of technology but of spirit and rebirth.
The more discerning among you may have noticed that I’ve been preaching on last week’s reading from Jeremiah. So now here’s the gift from this week’s reading: God says that he will make a new covenant with Israel, and write the words on their hearts. Someone asked his rabbi, “Why ON the heart and not IN the heart?”
The rabbi replied “Because when your heart is breaking, then the words will fall in.”
(1)E. Glenn Hinson, Lectionary Homiletics, October 2010.
(2) Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 20090.