Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Learning to Live in Exile

Sermon for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost
Anglican Parishes of Almaguin/Emsdale
Oct. 14th, 2007

God of all hope, you have called us to be your people. Teach us how to do that so that we can witness to your ways in our world and so to participate in your transformation of it. Amen.

During one of my classes in seminary in Toronto, my theology professor was trying to make a valid point and he used a passage of Scripture from the book of Jeremiah in support of it. After making his point, a student in the back of the class raised her hand and after my professor acknowledged her, she said, “you know sir, Jeremiah just doesn’t speak to me.” Without skipping a beat, my quick witted professor responded with, “Well, frankly dear, I don’t blame him.”

The point is that Jeremiah still speaks to us whether we listen or not, whether we are open to what he has to say to us or whether we think he’s irrelevant—a by-product of another time with nothing of relevance to us.

Last week we considered what it might mean to exist as a people who live thankful lives, even in full view of the complexities and struggles of life. We learned that Israel, even amongst the ruins of Jerusalem, learned how to give thanks to God. This morning, we consider, thanks to this letter from Jeremiah to his fellow Hebrews, what it might mean for Israel and for us to live in exile.

Our first reading is the beginning of a letter which Jeremiah wrote to his fellow Jews who had recently been trucked off to Babylon after Jerusalem fell. There were some prophets who were counseling the people that they would be leaving Babylon shortly and that their stay there would soon end. But, if we were to read further into the letter, Jeremiah calls these prophets liars. Jeremiah’s words to Israel?: Israel better hunker down and spread some roots because this stay in Babylon was looking more permanent than transitory. In fact, Israel remained in Babylon captivity for generations but ultimately they did survive their exilic existence and were restored as a people though many continued to live as Diaspora Jews, as ‘scattered’ Jews within Babylon. This is one of the most astonishing historical phenomena we have in the Hebrew Scriptures that the Jewish people survived the Babylonian exile. If this doesn’t impress you at face value, the Northern kingdom went into captivity as well at the hands of the Assyrians and, well, that’s where we get the name the ‘lost-tribes’ of Israel from…they just disappeared from history.

The story of Israel’s exilic life is ultimately a story of hope in the darkest of days, a story of surviving as a people, when all the odds are stacked high against you. Jeremiah’s counsel is for Israel to continue to exist as Israel, to keep on doing it’s Israel thing—to multiply and not to decrease, and as Israel to seek the welfare of the city, to pray for Babylon, and in its welfare to find its own welfare for Yahweh works—surprise, surprise—even through Babylon. Jeremiah doesn’t counsel revolt against Babylon but an active living in it—and through this, through living as Israel fully immersed in Babylon and its culture, Israel would witnesses to the fidelity of God in a society that is hostile to its existence. Jeremiah doesn’t counsel Israel to passively acquiesce in Babylon, but to be who she is in Babylon—to be active witnesses to God even in Babylon. The vision of Israel’s life in exile is a missionary vision. In Psalm 137 the Psalmist asks : “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” And yet that is what Israel learned to do, and do well.

We often hear about the death of the church at the hands of secular culture, a culture that has little or merely decorative use for the church. And our culture, if we’re honest with ourselves, is, if not outright hostile to the church’s existence, at the very best, merely puts up with it. But this is nothing new and it shouldn’t come as a surprise, the church was born into such hostility in the Roman empire. So it’s not a new situation, the church has always existed as a witness to the ways and world of God in Christ within a world that would rather not hear about it. And this culture, this situation, this post-Christian world we live in is looking more permanent than transitory. We better learn how to hunker down and learn how to live as the church in our times.

So, just like Israel, the church lives in exile—as the church we live as a peculiar and strange people—as people whose lives are shaped and governed by the gospel and by the virtues and habits of being of Christian discipleship and we exist as this people in a world that is shaped by all sorts of other isms—by materialism, by capitalism, or by secularism to name but a few. Many have sounded the death knell on the church. But just like the rumors of Ina’s Trollove’s death were so greatly exaggerated, so too is our culture’s pronouncement of death upon the church.

Our word this morning from this ancient prophet is a word of hope—what does Jeremiah speak to us this morning?—keep on living as the church in the culture we find ourselves in, keep on being the church: multiply and do not decrease, keep on existing as a people whose lives find their rhythm, not in the time and pace of society and culture, but as the church, as a people whose lives are shaped by God’s time, by God’s time for us in Jesus Christ. Our lives are shaped and given contour and definition by what we do here in our liturgy this morning and by the subtle gestures of our common life because it is in the enactment of this common life, that the transformation of the world has begun.

It is in the subtle gestures of our common life
gestures of kindness, peace, and concordand in the rhythm of the liturgy, in the formation of Christian discipleship; it is in all of this, in the living of life as Christ’s body to the world, that the church lives its life in exile. The church lives, not in revolt against our culture, but as fully alive within it! This is the call of mission for the church: it is not a call to passive acquiescence, to roll over in Babylon, but a call to an active witness in a culture that so badly needs to hear about the One who has redeemed our world.


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