January 23, 2022: Exile – Where are we?

Scripture Reading (CEB) Lamentations 1:1-4, 2:7-9, 3:22-33

Oh, no! She sits alone, the city that was once full of people. Once great among nations, she has become like a widow. Once a queen over provinces, she has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night, her tears on her cheek. None of her lovers comfort her. All her friends lied to her; they have become her enemies. Judah was exiled after suffering and hard service. She lives among the nations; she finds no rest. All who were chasing her caught her— right in the middle of her distress. Zion’s roads are in mourning; no one comes to the festivals. All her gates are deserted. Her priests are groaning, her young women grieving. She is bitter.  2:7 My Lord rejected his altar, abandoned the sanctuary; God handed Zion’s palace walls over to enemies. They shouted in the Lord’s own house as if it were a festival day. The Lord planned to destroy Daughter Zion’s wall. God stretched out a measuring line, didn’t stop the devouring. God made barricades and walls wither—together they wasted away. Zion’s gates sank into the ground; God broke and shattered her bars; her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction!  Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord. 3:22 Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!  23 They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.  24 I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for God. 25 The Lord is good to those who hope, to the person who seeks. 26 It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance. 27 It’s good for a man to carry a yoke in his youth.  28 He should sit alone and be silent when God lays it on him. 29 He should put his mouth in the dirt—perhaps there is hope. 30 He should offer his cheek for a blow; he should be filled with shame. 31 My Lord definitely won’t reject forever. 32 Although God has caused grief, God will show compassion in measure with covenant loyalty.  33 God definitely doesn’t enjoy affliction, making humans suffer.

Who(se) are we?                                        Rev. Chris Fickling

Last week, I introduced the topic for the next few weeks of sermons – the topic of the exile, the Babylonian captivity, a make or break time in the Jewish faith, and how it all mirrors our own time. 

Occurring roughly 600 years before the birth of Christ, the Israelites at the time had been enjoying some time at the top, post liberation from Egypt, wilderness wandering and the eventual establishment of their home and culture, they were set.  Their God was stronger than all others.  Their God fulfilled promises and gave land.  The Israelites were comfortable and boasting.  Until King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon could no longer take it, defeating the Israelites and carried off roughly 10000 of their people[1], their riches, and hoping to carry off their faith.

In response to this time, the book of Lamentations was written.  I love the book of Lamentations – there’s part of me that wants to read it all to you – it’s quite short though in spite of its brevity it fully captures the struggle of the Israelites.  Lamentations is filled with the weeping and questioning that you’d expect from those in moments of trial.  But the words written aren’t particular or unique to their situation.  These are our moments of heartache, when God seems so far away: 

Pay attention, Lord, for I am in trouble. My stomach is churning;
my heart is pounding inside me because I am so bitter.

My eyes are worn out from weeping…

Ican’t help but remember and am depressed.

Those who once ate gourmet food now tremble in the streets.

Joy has left our heart;
        our dancing has changed into lamentation.
 (Book of Lamentations, Common English Bible)

The Book of Lamentations convinces us that three thousand years between them and us doesn’t seem that long ago.  For our own exilic moments still force us into existential crises: when you wondered who you were anymore, if you believed anymore, if you could ever trust in God again.  These crises are a part of our humanity.  Death, job loss, some sort of life altering change, ongoing pandemics – all of these lead us to a state of exile, and challenge our identity.  It’s a part of our struggle of belief, whether we’re talking about God, or friends or family, when trouble strikes we might intellectually know that we are loved, and supported, but our hearts betray us.  Our feelings wash over us, our eyes become worn out from weeping, and remembering only leads to depression – it doesn’t matter how many support networks we’ve built around us, it feels like we’re alone.  It feels like everyone is out to get us, even God.  Even the author of Lamentations wonders if God has rejected and abandoned the people, causing destruction and “permitting” awful things to happen.  Depression will do that.  It will turn the promise of a new day, into an anxiety ridden anticipated repeat of what has come before. 

This has always been a challenge of the faithful – living in the paradox of God’s presence, bombarded with the reality of truly awful things.  We live in this tension, just as did the writer of Lamentations did, for woven throughout their despair, you can hear how they fought to keep the faith:

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!  23 They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.  24 I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for God. 25 The Lord is good to those who hope, to the person who seeks…Although God has caused grief, God will show compassion in measure with covenant loyalty.  33 God definitely doesn’t enjoy affliction, making humans suffer.

While Lamentations lives up to its name, the miracle of hope persists! 

How then do we cultivate hope in the midst of despair – like the writer of Lamentations did?  How did the Israelites shift their perspective from everything they’ve lost, to everything that remained?  How do we not despair at this world on fire (pandemic, climate change, spiralling global hunger, rapidly growing inequality, etc[2])?  For the Israelites, it began with the realization that their life, no matter how problem-filled, was a miracle. 

Miracles

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—
the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

Walt Whitman

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles…
the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!  They are renewed every morning.

Every morning, the miracles of God are renewed.  The Israelites woke in Babylon to realize that God was still faithful, God was present to their cries as before, God’s miraculous love called them still to community with one another (even though they were separate).  All that they experienced in exile became a miracle of empathy for them:

The concept of being outcast and marginalized, of expulsion and wandering, came to be seen as an intrinsic part of Jewish existence. This close association with the less fortunate and marginalized has motivated many modern Jews to support causes that work towards social justice, both within and outside the Jewish community.  At times in Jewish history, the theme of interminable suffering has also seemed to pervade all aspects of Jewish life.[3]

The Israelites moved from comfort to discomfort, and experienced God in both.  They moved from temple and tradition to turmoil and still felt God’s calling.  They moved from undoing to understanding, as they discovered miracles surrounded them still – every hour of light and dark told the story of creation, every square yard of the surface of earth became promised land.  For we never cease being God’s greatest concern.  Great is God’s faithfulness to us.  Even when we forget ourselves, under the weight of the problems we’re facing, God notices us.  The Israelites noticed all that God was doing still in Babylon, still in them. 

The Israelites discovered what we in the United Church would later call The Presence Project.[4]  It begins with an assumption – that if you’re not feeling it right now – that’s ok.  The common starting place is what is most important, and it is what the Israelites did when they found themselves (together) in a foreign land.  Their common faith was a starting place until they believed the words they prayed – the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended.  They said these words like an incantation, like a prayer, until it became reality.  So too does the Presence Project use simple belief and simple prayer:

Surely God is in this place.
Help me notice.

In our time of exile, we must adopt the assumption of the lamenting Israelites, that surely, God is in this place.  God is in this sanctuary, and this hour of worship, but so too in this place and time, acting with and through each of us desperate enough to believe that the miracles of God haven’t left us.  Praying from the assumption of God’s presence, we, like the Israelites, ask to notice all that God is doing.  We pray, surely God is in this place, and

Help me to notice the story of God still unfolding.  Help me to notice the mundane miracles that are so commonplace nowadays that I take them for granted.   Help me to notice the growing grace and the groaning hearts.   

Praying these simple words allows us a discipline in these difficult times.  They give us routine when ours are disrupted, and I encourage you to try starting your day, to renew your faith every morning with promise and prayer:

Surely God is in this place.
Help me notice.

We practice the awareness of the presence of God, as the Israelites did long before us,
to rediscover both who, and whose we are.  Amen


[1] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Exile.html

[2] The miracle of all of these problems, is that we already have everything we need to combat these issues, except the fortitude and sacrifice required to fix them.

[3] https://pluralism.org/diaspora-community

[4] https://www.presenceprojectnetwork.ca/beginning

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