St. Philip Lutheran Church
24 October 2021 + Lectionary 30b (Pent. 22)
Rev. Josh Evans
I don’t think anyone enjoys moving. Sure, you might be excited to start your new job, or move to a new city, or finally have a place of your own, your “dream house” with the backyard or breakfast nook you fell in love with.
But the actual logistics of moving? Packing up your belongings, one by one, carefully wrapping the most fragile items in bubble wrap, living out of boxes and suitcases, not to mention the expense…
Moving is stressful and overwhelming enough when it’s your choice, and as cumbersome as it is, you always have the destination and the newness on the other side to look forward to. But imagine moving when you don’t want to, when circumstances force you from your home and everything you’ve ever known.
So much of what we know as the Old Testament came to be during the time when Israel and Judah lived in exile. Next to the exodus, the exile is one of the most significant events in their national history. With his fellow prophets, Jeremiah ministers to a people displaced, conquered by a foreign military power, and forcibly relocated to a strange, new place.
This is a people living away from their ancestral home … even their religious center, the temple in Jerusalem, destroyed.
Theirs is the psalmist’s song: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” How can we live faithfully when everything we know and cherish has suddenly been taken out from underneath us?
There is despair, disappointment, and hopelessness here.
We don’t have to search too long to find the parallels in our own global context. Open a newspaper, or pull up a news site, and it’s only a matter of time before a story about refugees (exiles) from somewhere leaps off the page or the screen.
One writer describes her experience as a Hmong refugee resettling in Minnesota “many years ago.” In a letter that begins “Dear refugee child leaving your country behind…” Kao Kalia Yang remembers boarding the plane with her family when she was only six years old: “It was my first time on such a journey and I was leaving everything I knew behind.”
They were going to “a better place…a place far from here where you will be safe,” the parents tried to explain to their children. But even so, Yang writes: “When we got to where we were going: a place with buildings and people and streets spreading far, I felt smaller than I had ever felt before. I watched my mother and father turn around in a circle, trying to learn about the new place and how they might keep us safe here… I know what it is like to feel unsafe even on your way to safety.”
The mixed emotions of that experience is one our biblical ancestors know well. The people of Judah know what it’s like to leave behind everything they know, and now, it’s happening again … this time in reverse.
Returning home from exile should be a joyful experience, right? But, Jeremiah writes: “With weeping they shall come.” There are mixed emotions here … in that single phrase, in that single word.
Weeping. One translation reads “tears of joy.” Maybe. But the Hebrew, as usual, is much more ambiguous.
Generations had lived and died in exile. Babies were born, and children grew up here. For some, I imagine exile was more home than “home” – a home they had only ever heard stories of, but had never experienced themselves.
And now, when the seemingly impossible is happening, there is surely joy and excitement and nervous anticipation. And also: grief. They’re about to leave behind new friends and neighbors, new ways of life, the familiar … again. And perhaps most poignantly of all, leaving also means leaving behind the memories of loved ones who went into exile with them but wouldn’t be coming back home.
With weeping they shall come. Tears of joy and tears of grief.
On the North Shore of Chicagoland, the experience of refugees and exiles feels so incredibly far removed from us … and yet, I can’t help but think of the “exile” of pandemic we’ve collectively experienced these past two years.
There has been loss. Lives lost, certainly, and also routines and traditions we’ve long taken for granted. Two years without 70+ kids filling our building with laughter and learning during VBS. Two years without the church auction, or the small talk over coffee and pastries after worship. Two years marked by the loss of longtime members who have either died or moved away.
And yet, even in the midst of loss, we’ve also adapted in profound and creative ways to our “new normal.” Working from home? Great! Grocery deliveries? Fantastic! Church on the big screen with coffee in hand and unsightly bedhead? Yes, please!
Just as we’ve started to find our new home in a strange land, now we’re being asked to adapt again. Coming home, returning to church, experiencing life as it used to be “before” … however slowly and cautiously … it feels hopeful and strange and different and even a little bit sad, all at once.
With weeping we return…
There are tears of joy for the hope that lies ahead, and there are tears of grief for all that we leave behind … for lives lost and routines and traditions we may never fully get back.
I once read a commentary on the book of Jeremiah where the writer suggested that this is a book that testifies to God’s enduring presence and promise, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Loss and change – and the grief they bring – are a part of our human existence. So is God’s faithfulness.
When it feels like all evidence to the contrary is mounting, God is still with us. The Spirit is here, as fiery as ever, and new life is taking root and rising from the ashes of what has been.
With Jeremiah, and Bartimaeus, and all of God’s faithful ones from every time and place, we cry out, confident that God hears us. We cry out because we know that God has heard us in the past, and we cry out because we know that God will hear us into the future.
God who has become a father and mother to Israel tenderly cares for us and loves us, as a parent loves their child, carrying us to safety and leading us home.
God is with us in the exile.
God is with us in the strange land.
God is with us on the way home.
God is with us into the future.
God is with us now.