February 6: Exile – Why are we here?

Scripture Reading (CEB) Isaiah 43:1-24

But now, says the Lord— the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you. I am the Lord your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior. I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place. Because you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you. I give people in your place, and nations in exchange for your life. Don’t fear, I am with you. From the east I’ll bring your children; from the west I’ll gather you.
I’ll say to the north, “Give them back!” and to the south, “Don’t detain them.” Bring my sons from far away, and my daughters from the end of the earth, 7everyone who is called by my name and whom I created for my glory, whom I have formed and made. Bring out the blind people who have eyes, the deaf ones who have ears. All the nations are gathered together; the peoples are assembled. Which of them announced this? Who predicted to us the past events? Let them bring their witnesses as a defense; let them hear and say, “It’s true!” 10 You are my witnesses, says the Lord, my servant, whom I chose, so that you would know and believe me and understand that I am the one. Before me no god was formed; after me there has been no other. 11 I, I am the Lord, and there is no savior besides me. 12 I announced, I saved, I proclaimed, not some stranger among you. You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God. 13 From the dawn of time, I am the one. No one can escape my power. I act, and who can undo it? 14 The Lord your redeemer, the holy one of Israel, says,
For your sake, I have sent an army to Babylon, and brought down all the bars, turning the Chaldeans’ singing into a lament. 15 I am the Lord, your holy one, Israel’s creator, your king! 16 The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick. 18 Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. 19 Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness. 20 The beasts of the field, the jackals and ostriches, will honor me, because I have put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness to give water to my people, my chosen ones,21 this people whom I formed for myself, who will recount my praise. 22 But you didn’t call out to me, Jacob; you were tired of me, Israel. 23 You didn’t bring me lambs for your entirely burned offering; you didn’t honor me with your sacrifices. I didn’t make you worship with offerings; I didn’t weary you with frankincense. 24 You didn’t buy spices for me with your money, or satisfy me with the fat of your sacrifices. Instead, you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your evil actions.

Why are we here?

On the cover of last week’s bulletin was a potted flower – a visual representation of the message of the sermon, that no matter where we’re planted, we can bloom. 

That picture reminded me of my father-in-law’s orchid garden.  Their living room is full of something like 10 plants that I was terrifyingly-entrusted with for a couple of days when they went away last summer.  Now I know very little of plants, and even less of orchids, so when I found the itty-bitty measuring cup to provide them oh-so-little water I was confused.  He told me that he’s found that not only are orchids planted quite shallowly, and need only very sparse soil, they take very little water to thrive.  He’s had quite the success, while seemingly doing very little.  This gardening I experienced was almost the complete opposite of all those scriptures that encourage us to “plant ourselves besides streams of water” (Psalm 1) or that when we send our “roots by the stream…[we will not fear] when heat comes” (Jeremiah 17).  There are moments like those that the Israelites experienced, when we feel shallow or sparse or without that which sustains, and yet we can still grow.  It’s as easy as noticing all that is good that surrounds us, and assuming that surely God is in this place

With Jeremiah’s encouragement, the Israelites bloomed where they were planted – choosing not to waste away in their time of exile (or lockdown).  They no longer understood that their time of trial was a punishment.  Instead, this time became a preparation for them, discovering that every step in life prepares you for the next one.  They realized that lamenting their losses only fed their despair, so they stopped complaining, for when they only saw the negative, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This change enabled them to see that this time of exile was a profound gift.  They saw suffering everywhere – there were Babylonians experiencing great poverty, foreigners excluded and maligned, and that shared common humanity inspired the Israelites to become a blessing to others.  For when we personally thrive – our communities thrive.  When we feel blessed, we are more motivated to help others feel the same way.  And this combination of the abandonment of self-pity and turning that energy outwards towards others is truly what enabled the Israelites to bloom and grow.  And it’s at the heart of this list of shared blessings that Janice Bock (member of our church) shared with the office this week:

This Year…
Mend a quarrel.  Seek out a forgotten friend.  Write a love letter. Share some treasure. 
Gift a soft answer.  Encourage youth. Keep a promise.  Find the time.  Forgive an enemy.
Listen.  Apologize if you were wrong.  Think first of someone else. Be kind and gentle.
Laugh a little. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Gladden the heart of a child.
Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth.
Speak your love. Speak it again. Speak it still once again!

These shared blessings enable all to grow, and they get us back to the unspoken real question still plaguing us.  For while we have spoken much of the exile and where we find ourselves, who and whose we are, and how shall we live, we’ve skipped over the hardest question of them all: why we’re here.  If we can’t answer that, then truly none of the other questions even matter.

I’ve known plenty of people of all stages and ages of life to find themselves burdened with the answer to that question of why.  Why am I here?  Why me (when tragedy strikes?)  Why is there so much suffering if God loves us so much?  I’ve sat at bedsides steeped in the mystery of the moment as someone dying asks why they can’t just go.  I’ve anguished with the suicidal who have no answer to that same question.  It’s an unbearable question for many. 

As a result[1] we’ve created countless religions, written innumerable self-help books, and preached sermons for days.  In fact, there’s as many answers as there are creatures upon this earth.  Richard Dawkins would tell you that it’s to pass on our genes.[2]  Darwin might argue that change and evolution is integral to our why.  Philosophers and theologians will argue meaning and purpose seemingly callously while lives are at stake.  God may promise “I know the plans I have in mind for you…” (Jeremiah 29:11) but we expect a clearly laid out plan, only to give God a piece of our minds when things rarely work out.  

I wish I could answer the why for you.  I wish I could detail the plans God has in mind for you but honestly, there’s some days I can’t figure mine out.  Like the Israelites before us – we have to discover our unique whys in amongst our sighs, to discover reason and purpose that makes sense to each of us.  These whys are born out of our individual families of origin…the histories that make us who we are (as we either choose to embrace or discard them), and the hope and futures that lay before us. 

Hearing that, it might be interesting for you to know that the United Church is currently undergoing it’s own attempt to answer that question ‘why.’ As a result of prayer and deep discussion, they’ve tried to answer why the church is relevant in such a highly individualistic time.  Are we still relevant? Is Christianity still needed when so many don’t darken our doors?  The questions of why we’re here, should loom over every sermon, every meeting, every conversation.  It’s even behind our 44th General Council (the meeting of United Churches across Canada that happens every three years – that I learned just recently that I was elected to be a part of) – for Jesus asks each one of us, who do you say that I am?[3] 

To these immensely difficult questions, the United Church has crafted a response.  In both a call and a vision, the church sought to reflect the core of our purpose, sharing who we seek to be in “such a time as this” (Esther 4:15):

Called by God, as disciples of Jesus, The United Church of Canada seeks to be a bold, connected, evolving church of diverse, courageous, hope-filled communities united in deep spirituality, inspiring worship, and daring justice.

Why are we here? To experience deep (personal) spirituality, to share in inspiring worship and bold discipleship in our churches together, and to enact daring justice in our world.  No easy answers or easily laid out plans, but an invitation to way of life that is both personal and shared.  A work of art that we each contribute a brush stroke with a colour of our choosing – even if we’ve colourblind.  A song that we each sing a note in our own range – with allowances made for those who consider themselves tone-deaf.  A communion feast that invites everyone to grab something from their pantries to share with others – and places made for those if all they can bring is hunger. 

Why are we here? 
To hear God call each of us by name and to help others so deafened by the cries of the world to hear God call them by name as well. 

For we are not working out the whys of our existence alone:  God is already doing a new thing amongst us when we gather together.  God is making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness, when all we see are dead ends.  God believes that this present moment is best met with you, entrusting this present moment to you, for you are my witnesses, says the Lord…and who are we to question why? For even God has an answer to that – for full of compassion and hope, God asks us, why not?  Why not you? 


[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/collections/201112/the-big-question-why-are-we-here

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selfish_Gene

[3] This question – Who do you say that I am – is the theme of the 44th meeting of General Council, and is the “confession” of faith that each of us should struggle to answer who Jesus is for each of us.

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