February 20: Exile – what has changed?

Scripture Reading (CEB) Jeremiah 31:1-13, 31-34

1 At that time, declares the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people. 2 The Lord proclaims: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. As Israel searched for a place of rest, 3the Lord appeared to them from a distance: have loved you with a love that lasts forever. And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself. 4 Again, I will build you up, and you will be rebuilt, virgin Israel.

Again, you will play your tambourines and dance with joy. 5 Again, you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; farmers will plant and then enjoy the harvests. 6 The time will come when the watchmen shout from the highlands of Ephraim: “Get ready! We’re going up to Zion to the Lord our God!” 7 The Lord proclaims: Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation. Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The Lord has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!” 8 I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth.

Among them will be the blind and the disabled, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here. 9 With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble. I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child. 10 Listen to the Lord’s word, you nations, and announce it to the distant islands: The one who scattered Israel will gather them and keep them safe, as a shepherd his flock.11 The Lord will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are. 12 They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the Lord’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds. Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more. 13 Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them. 31 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

What has changed?

Now, every day is a risk.  Now, I have no choice but to cling to faith and hope and love for dear life. Now, I have to keep a very close eye on Jesus, as he leads me through deep valleys and precarious peaks. But the view is better, and, for the first time in a long time, I am fully engaged in my faith. I am alive. I am dependent. I am following Jesus as me—heart and head intact. (Rachel Held Evans)

When I read those words every day is a risk, it was like a punch in my gut.  But the risk for me isn’t the pandemic or the protests or even coming back to church next week.  It’s the uncertainty of what kind of world are we actually returning to?

I know travelling is but a distant memory for the majority of us, but for me, returning home has always been the worst part of a trip.  I have no problem being away, but in the days leading up to a trip (and even to the last few minutes before locking the door) in order to make my return easier, I’m cleaning the house.  I make sure we don’t return to dishes in the sink, or food rotting in the fridge, or a forgotten garbage pile that then attracts some neighbourhood raccoons who decide this empty house is the perfect spot to establish their trash panda paradise.  The problems that we don’t deal with are still going to be there upon our return.  They’re going to wait until we deal with them.  Which is why Israel saw their exile as a sort of punishment, a time of introspection, a time to clean house.  In exile, they rediscovered the stories of Moses and how God had delivered the chosen people from the clutches of despair.  In exile, these still-chosen people cleaned house, trying to get back to what was really important.

I’ve always thought that if Jesus were to return, he wouldn’t come back to the churches.  He wouldn’t stop by to see the stained glass or the tapestry Lord’s Suppers to see who got his likeness just right.  He might stop by the Catholic church currently embroiled in a what-to-do with a priest from the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona.[1]  It was recently discovered that this priest in the sacrament of baptism proclaimed: We baptize you…instead of I baptize you… over the thousands of baptisms during his ministry, and while one little word doesn’t seem like much, in the Catholic church, this invalidates all those baptisms.  And not just those, like a house of cards falling into one big mess, this affects weddings, baptisms, communion and funerals alike.  I imagine Jesus, not in a judgmental or chastising way, just shaking his head wondering how we as people of faith could so often miss the point. 

But it’s not just us.  Look at humanity as a whole.  We have enough food production to feed the world, but not the drive or will to share it.  We have the need for basic income to provide for all people, but not the taxation to support it.  We have medical science and vaccines to keep people safe, but not the trust to believe it.  We have the smartest people in the history of the earth, access to more information and more technology than in all of our history, but not the critical thinking skills to discern fake news from flat earth from facts.  We have the most democratic society here in Canada, and yet we have flags with expletives and our Prime Minister’s name waving proudly not six months after a federal election[2] and a gov’t that resorts to an Emergency measures act when literally nothing else was tried.  The messes are piling up and we’re missing the point of our existence. 

For the first time in a long time, I am fully engaged in my faith. I am alive. I am dependent. I am following Jesus as me—heart and head intact. (Rachel Held Evans)

I am fully engaged in my faith because I’ve got nothing else.  I know how little I know.  I can’t predict the future any better than any of you, and I can’t imagine the next two years of our lives together, no better than any of us could predict the time between March 2020 and now.  I’m leaning so much into my faith and hope, because I’ve got nothing else – because the know-it-all-ness with all of us playing experts over the last two(ten)(thousand) years hasn’t brought us closer together.  My faith tells me that God is still here.  My faith tells me that people are still worth loving.  My faith tells me that even in death there is life.  All these are still true to me – even if I have no idea how to live it out some days.

I am alive.  And because of that, I have this day to love.  And this love looks like patience, kindness,

it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.

 Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails.  (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

No one lives up to this definition of love, but it is still the ideal to which we strive.  For we are all dependent.  On one another.  On God – who risks relationship with us knowing how easy it is for us to ignore or reject.  On Jesus – whose love took the shape of feeding people on a hillside, who healed on a Sabbath knowing it would anger those in power, who preached hard messages hoping people might transcend their humanity, who flipped tables because of exploitation, who sacrificed his very life in order that we might objectively see the pains we inflict upon one another.  On the Spirit – who lifts these stories from ancient texts in order that we might see ourselves in this dimly lit mirror.  We are all dependent – even though self-interests convince us otherwise. 

I am following Jesus as me—heart and head intact, knowing that intact is a relative term, and none of us are our best selves.  But these last two years have only piled mess upon mess, more anxiety and fears upon our already full hearts and heads.  I am following Jesus as me – imperfect and flawed, trusting that you are doing the same, trying to return to the initial days of the pandemic where I believed that everyone is trying their best.  Getting back to that, is getting back to the grace that we need to move forward – it’s what allows us to clear the clutter, and love one another for who they are, and not who we want them to be. 

We’ve all failed at that somewhere along the way.  Especially in the last two years.  It’s natural in exile and lockdown to lose our way.  But if we remain lost, it is because we have chosen to no longer follow Jesus.  Can you see a hand outstretched?  Can you hear a voice calling:

I have loved you with a love that lasts forever.  And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself. Again, I will build you up, and you will be rebuilt… I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest (Jeremiah 31, CEB)

“when we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others. That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone – a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World)

Together, may we do the work to clean out our hearts and heads of all that has accumulated over these last two(ten)(thousand) years to discover that underneath it all is written God’s love.  And may we reclaim the faith, hope, and love required to help others discover that God’s love is written on their hearts too.

[1] https://www.npr.org/2022/02/15/1080829813/priest-resigns-baptisms

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/january-web-only/christian-victory-election-loss.html


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