I have come to the conclusion that the people of St. Peter and St. Paul really love the Lord their God. Really, you must, because you wake up in time to get to a Sunday service at 8:15 in the morning. Every week. You must love Jesus a great deal. Most of us visiting you don’t go to church until 11 in the morning. I’m not sure what that says about us, but it tells me you must love God.
Even this early in the morning, I want to focus my attention on the reading we have from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is not an easy character. Jeremiah is not the sort of man you’d want to invite to a dinner party. He is a gloom and doom prophet. Jeremiah’s nickname among the rabbis was the “weeping prophet” because Jeremiah is the prophet of the exile. In the 6th century BC the Babylonian exile be3gan. The people of Israel are taken from the Promised Land and brought to Babylon. As we hear in the psalm:
By the Waters of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion
Jeremiah is the prophet who has to tell the people about their exile in Babylon. His job is made harder because Hananiah, a supposed prophet, a false prophet, has told the people their exile will not last long. They will only be in Babylon for two years. Jeremiah has to tell the people it will be much, much longer.
The words of the prophet in this letter to the exiles are difficult, but one word really stuck with me. The word was “I.” God says, “I, I God have sent you into exile.” In the Hebrew God doesn’t actually use a pronoun, but the first person singular “galah.” I have exiled you. This is tricky. God is in the exile.
I read a translation of this word “exile” that made it a bit more real for me. “Exile” is such a “bible word.” Exile to me sounds like something that happened a long time ago to a people far away. The translation I read was in Spanish: “Los he deportado.” I, God, have DEPORTED you.
“Deported” is a word with contemporary significance. At St. John’s Church in Washington, I work with our Spanish language congregation. At 1pm we have a congregation of immigrants, which is something we have in common with you. At St. Peter and St. Paul you also have a 1pm immigrant congregation. Your congregation is from Zimbabwe. Ours is from Latin America. In the years I have been at St. John’s some of our Spanish speaking members have been deported. They have been taken from the country where they have made their homes and sent to a place they may not have seen since they were small children.
Deportation is miserable. Deportation breaks up families. Deportation takes people from their homes.
As we toured the Apartheid museum and Soweto yesterday, I read again and again about people who were forced, by economic conditions, religious persecution, or by armed force to move, to leave home. I read about people who were deported. South Africa knows about deportation. South Africa knows about Exile.
Exile is something familiar to us, not just a word about people in the Bible a long time ago. Exile is a contemporary reality. There are exiles today, from Syria, from Zimbabwe, from countries with broken economies.
There are also more personal exiles. Anyone who has lost a parent or a loved one also knows about exile. When you lose someone who makes a house home to you, you know about exile. Loss of jobs. Loss of friends. Loss can often cause a feeling of exile. Exiles can be big and public and exiles can be small and private.
But don’t miss the good news in the prophet Jeremiah’s words today. Yes, even weeping prophets can bring good news.
God is the God of the exile. God is with God’s people, even in the Exile. God is with us in exile.
People who have come through great loss will tell you that, while they would never choose to suffer loss, they would also never give back the learning and the growth that come through loss. I know many people who became followers of Jesus when they hit rock bottom.
It is hard for me to think of God as the God of the Exile. It is easier to think of God as the God of liberation, the God of the Exodus. It is easy to see the work of God in liberation God’s people. Yes, God is a God of liberation. Our God is the God of the Exodus. Our God always works for our freedom. Our God is ALSO the God of exile.
So, what do we do with exile?
Hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah, the words of God for the people in exile:
“Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they produce.”
When people come to me asking for a new spiritual discipline. When they are frustrated by something in their life and want a new way to pray, I often say, “Go plant a garden.” Often these people seeking advice look at me like I am very strange, which I am, but I think planting a garden is very spiritual.
Have you heard the expression “we’re putting down roots.” When we “put down roots” we are settling down. Planting a garden teaches us that the work of God is often slow. It takes time for the roots to grow. I remember being a little kid, planting seeds, watering them, and then running back out to the garden every 10 minutes or so hoping to see my plants grow. God’s work is often slow.
God’s work can be fragile, like a seedling. God’s work often takes a lot of indirect labor. We have to tend the soil to grow healthy gardens. We have to compost and watch out for bugs, and do all sorts of things that are not directly related to the little plants growing up. We have to work to create a healthy atmosphere to allow growth. See how much spirituality you can learn in the slow work of gardening?
Jeremiah tells the people to put down roots. This was not easy for the people to do. They want swift salvation. They want to go home. Now. “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?” they ask in that psalm. But eventually they learned to sing in Babylon. God was with the people in Babylon, even in Babylon. God is with us always.
The last line we have from Jeremiah is one of the best, and the most challenging I think, in all of scripture:
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.
It actually reads “seek the SHALOM of the city, for in its SHALOM you will find your SHALOM.”
Seek the peace. Seek the wholeness. Seek the blessing of God for these Babylonians you are stuck with. As I said, these are not easy words. Part of the reason we Americans come to South Africa is as pilgrims. We come to see a place where the people are trying to overcome great divides. We come to see a country where God’s people are learning to seek the shalom of the other. Granted, we know that South Africa is still learning. We in the United States have a lot to learn from you. We all have a lot to learn from God.
What we hear from Jeremiah today is that God can be found even in the toughest situations.
God has work to do on us even after our liberation.
God is not through with us.
God will never be through with us.
God is always a step ahead of us, inviting us to know God’s peace. Inviting us to work for the peace, the shalom of the people among whom we find ourselves. God is always inviting us to know that we will find our shalom, our wholeness, in the wholeness of our neighbors. God’s word to all of us exiles is this: You will find your peace, when you know that your wholeness is tied to the wholeness of all God’s people. Shalom.