Exiles and Locals: How Are We Supposed to be Both?, Old First Sermon 10.13.13

Exiles and Locals: How Are We Supposed to be Both?, Old First Sermon 10.13.13

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Luke 17:11-19

Last week, I asked us to think of ourselves as outsiders. 
Now, I know most weeks, today’s congregation isn’t the same as last weeks.
So only some of you heard last Sunday’s sermon.

So then I’m asking you to begin again this week,
or asking for the first time today that we try thinking of ourselves as outsiders for a moment.

That’s no easy task for most of us 
who are what used to be called mainline Protestants.

Oh, it’s easier for a few of us who are in this or that way “displaced people,”
or just particularly alone.  

But for most of us, spiritually, how can we be outsiders in a world we’re so comfortable in, 
(because in large parts its both the parent and the product of the faith we hold.) 
 
Oh, in other ways, everyone probably knows a bit what it means to feel liminal. 

That’s one of those high falutin words. But one that’s dear to me, 
because it means: 

1) occupying a position at, or on both sides of a boundary or threshold. 

AND

2) of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.

Liminal spaces are places of freedom and movement.
Where we can grow.  
They’re where we see new possibilities and make new beginnings. 

Religion is a liminal place. 
But liminality is also existential, human.

So everyone knows, or can know,
what it means to be in a liminal space. 

Maybe you are recognized as or know yourself as from “someplace else.”

Or you may have always been — in one way or another —
the odd one out in your family or neighborhood or community.

Maybe your sense of otherness is something only you know about.
 
But sometimes, I worry,
that though faith is about finding some liminal space
— in between heaven and earth, 
between the world as it is and as it ought to be, 
the here, now and some promised future, 

…Even though it’s where our faith means to put us, 
sometimes for us assimilated mainliners, 
so comfortable and fluent in our culture,
our place in the world and
our privileges, 
…sometimes we miss out on the importance of feeling some discomfort. 

So last week, I asked you to work on feeling a certain strangeness, 
even alienation from the world as we know it. 

Why? 

Because this world we inhabit often so seamlessly is far from how God means it to be…
 
All those doves flying in the courtyard.

Schools that don’t receive the funding to do justice to our children.

Chemical weapons. And traditional warfare. 

And subSaharan Africa wasting away under the prevalence of the HIV virus 
while desperately needed, life-giving drugs aren’t made available.
 
I could go on and on, but may I ask your help:
What are some other examples of how our world is not as God means it to me?

(People freely added a varied list of troubles and injuries our world knows too well.)
 

It’s a long and sad list, really, when you think about it.

So I hope you did some personal work this week 
and will keep it up next week– 

…because, if we keep God’s ways every before us, 
we begin to see we’re not always on the most promising path.
 
And the roads most traveled often aren’t getting us closer to where we are to be going.  
 
But today’s letter from Jeremiah is the other side of this “foreign coin.” 
He’s adding to the first step of faith,
that we do well to see ourselves as different,
as second complimentary step:
namely that we need to do so without without separating ourselves from. 

Not so much separate, but equal.
Rather “Different, but not separate.”
The social version of Edwin Friedman’s “self-differentiation without cut-offs.” 

Paul said it in his letter to the Romans this way:
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, 
but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. 
Then you will learn to know God’s will for you,
which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

If we really want to live as God means for us, 
we’re have to start out as aliens or foreigners.
 
But remember how I started the sermon last week, 
with the Pentecostal pastor who hoped to rescue his people from the world?
 
Jeremiah rejects such exceptionalism
that withdrawal from the world
can create some separate species of isolated saints.
 
Mark only read a part of Jeremiah’s letter…
it takes up the whole of the 29th chapter. 

The Israelites are living in the Babylon captivity.
They know full well their exile. 

And Jeremiah is writing them and us a powerful, pointed letter. 

He’s still waging his fight with the false prophets 
whose counsel has misled and condemned the Israelites to their fate.  

Here, specifically, his message to the exiled Israelites
— and to us in our exile too —
is different than what we mostly hear. 

Jeremiah warns us against those who would give us easy answers. 
And tell us what we want to hear. 

He says:
–whether or not we find his words easy to accept,
because it’s a rather radical message, 
because it’s the one that comes from God — 

…that God is behind our exile. 

Rather than some example of the power of the Lords of this world,
over against the impotence of God,  
it’s God who allows our captivities

…because we think we’re so smart, 
fool ourselves we’re in control, 
because we keep turning away for the humility we are to live
and the way we are to follow. 

Our troubles, the Prophet proclaims,
even they can be God’s instruments in Divine grace. 

Imagine that. 

But here’s the twist that I think is so important. 
What does Jeremiah advise in such a situation? 

He doesn’t say like the popular prophets
that the troubles will soon be past, 
and life will be back to normal 
(if there every really is a normal to get back to)  

Instead, he says, we heard Mark read it a few minutes ago:

“Build houses and live in them; 
plant gardens and eat what they produce. 
take wives and have sons and daughters; 
take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, 
that they may bear sons and daughters; 
multiply there, and do not decrease.” 

In the presence of today’s unusual congregation, I might add: 
Adopt pets. Put down roots. Grow where you are planted. 
Make full lives for yourselves in the midst of a world that is often strange and alien. 
Make the best of the world you have been given to live and work and play in. 
Live as foreigners and aliens and realize that God is there with you too, ‘
that there’s much to live for, 
even on those days where your heart and stomach ache with homesickness
even in exile in a foreign land. 

Sometimes we too get down in the dumps. 
Start feeling sorry for ourselves. 
Feeling our own exiles and captivities; we worry that God has abandoned us.  
Understandably, we want out of whatever foreign lands we feel sentenced to. 

But what if God is giving us Jeremiah’s message: 
Stay where you are. 
Hunker down. 
Don’t fool yourself that you can’t start really living until something changes. 
Make the best of your current situation. 
Live as faithfully as you can where you are, wherever you find yourself.

Could God be challenging you: “Serve me where I’ve put you.”  
No, this isn’t the Promised Land. 
But it’s not the slavery of Egypt either. 

At least the Babylonians offered their captives enough freedom
to own property and build homes and produce their own food. 

Here’s how I’d summarize tha pastoring behind Jeremiah’s unwelcome prophecy: 

Keep your hope alive. 
It isn’t as bad as you might think or believe. 
This exile is bearable. 
You CAN handle it with God’s help. 
Look for that hope in even the simplest, ordinary, everyday activity. 
God is still with you in and through all of this. 

And with the eyes of faith,
you can see God nearby
and at work for your benefit. 

Beloved, find God in the help others offer you and the help you can offer others. 
Not just heroic acts, but the care of a mother for her child,
the concern a neighbor can show each morning. 
in how so many of you attend to your pets.

Jeremiah has said, 
God is with us, even in this mess.
And you can find your way through it well,
healing towards wholeness and holiness. 

But there’s one more point Jeremiah makes that I want draw your attention to: 
It’s verse 7, it might be known as the immigrants’ prayer: 

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile; 
pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 

Paraphrasing how the Good News Bible puts it, I might say: 
“Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go,
even if as prisoners. 
Pray on their behalf:  
because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.”

The word we’ve translated into English as “welfare” or “good” is in Hebrew “shalom.” 

So, God’s asking the captive Israelites 
who’d been promised a land of their own
but are now in exile
to pray for the shalom of their captors. 

God’s prophet is saying that God’s people pray for God’s peace 
upon the city where they are in exile… 

…work for God’s peace upon the nation
that has conquered them and carted them off into this exile.

Sometimes prophecy is a hard reminder: 
God is a God of all people. 
Jews and Gentiles.
Those on our side of the world’s divides, as well as those on the other side.
Us and the Terrorists too.

God cares for our enemies too. 
And is present in their lands and lives as well. 

But more than that, if there’s anything special in our relationship with God, 
it’s not that we can expect special treatment or extraordinary favors. 

Rather, the specialness of our relationship with God
is not so much what we receive. 
It might be better described as what we can give. 

As Christians, the specialness of our relationship with God calls us 
to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. 

There is more blessing in giving than receiving. 

In fact, that’s the calling that makes one distinctively God’s
in a world that often so far from God: 
our service to friend and foe. 

First, figure out how you are and are supposed to be different. 
And then fit in and do all those everyday things like everyone else, even your enemies, 
except where your faith expects you to do more… 

Why? How? 
Shouldn’t we excerpt ourselves as much as possible from the exile 
we mostly cannot avoid? 

Jeremiah says no. 
That’s not how God works. 
Or how God wants us to work. 

Rather, ours is a roll up the sleeves and get involved sort of God. 
Our is a roll up our sleeves and get involved sort of faith.

And God gives us what we need to be different and involved in service.
 
In service, we stay near God. We follow God. We share God. 

The church, like the Jewish people as well, has a role beyond its own salvation. 

Not an ark that stays afloat up and over life’s floods
waiting for the day the storms subside.
 
But the church is more like the Red Cross showing up because the storm is storming
and the flood waters are rising.

I believe we just heard the choir sing earlier “Come to the water.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Amen.