Why Does Exile Matter?

September 29, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Jeremiah 29:1-14; Psalm 137

Anyone who has been to Jerusalem never forgets their first view of the city. It sits atop a promontory rising up from two valleys that slice through the hills. On that mount the ancient City of David was established 3,000 years ago. A few decades later, David’s son, King Solomon, built a magnificent Temple on that topographical plinth.

By all accounts, Solomon’s Temple was magnificent. It stood as a monument to the covenant between God and the Hebrew people for the next 500 years. Generations of Jews made pilgrimages – to “go up to Jerusalem” – to worship at the Temple of the Lord their God.

All of that came to a crashing end in the year 587 BCE, when the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of the neighboring Babylonian Empire defeated the Hebrews and conquered Jerusalem. They sacked the city and destroyed Solomon’s Temple. And in a final, humiliating move, they carried off the Hebrew royalty and the artisans and other workers and leaders and others into exile. The Israelites – deported from their newly conquered land – were forced to live in the foreign land of Babylon.

We’ve been exploring foundational stories of the Hebrew Scriptures this month. Today we look at the Exile. It took place 2500 years ago. Why does it still matter today? It became a key, defining narrative for the people of God. And it has significance for us and for our faith, as well.

The Exodus and the Babylonian Exile – these two ancient stories – profoundly shape Jewish self-understanding. The Exodus is simpler to understand: enslaved people are led to freedom. Exile is not so clear-cut. It’s a complicated story. We see that in the two texts this morning, both referring to the time of Exile.

In the psalm we hear a profound sadness, deep sorrow: “By the rivers of Babylon,” the poet begins, “There we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” (Psalm 137:1)

Bitterness infuses the poem. The psalmist gives voice to the anger burning in the hearts of those forced from their homes: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4)

And the psalm concludes with some of the most heart-wrenching, hard to hear words, in the Bible:

“O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9)

With that harsh language the poet expresses the deep pain and rage of people in exile, far from home. Their torment at the hands of those in power causes fierce anguish. Thoughts of vengeance rise in their minds as they think about all they have lost.

The Israelites in ancient Babylon are what we call today war refugees. They leave behind the violent destruction of their home and find themselves struggling in a foreign land. Many people in the world today share the experience of those ancient refugees.

According to the United Nations, at the end of 2018 more than 70 million people had been displaced from home by conflict or persecution. Almost half of them were refugees, including 15 million children under the age of 18. (https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/refugees/)

We remember the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy fleeing violence at home, whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. Or the picture of Valeria Martinez, the two-year old Salvadoran girl who drowned with her father in the Rio Grande trying to cross into our country earlier this year.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept.

The number of people across the world today displaced by various causes is the highest ever in recorded history, and that number is growing. The climate crisis will soon surpass war and violence as the leading reason people are being uprooted from their homes – storms and famine and other catastrophes made by changes in the climate. Last year there were 7 million people forced from home by climate-related causes alone. One estimate expects that number to reach 150 million in 20 years, if damage to the earth’s climate is not stopped or slowed. (Environmental Justice Foundation, at https://ejfoundation.org/)

The Israelites of old experienced a reality that today’s refugees know all too well: being forced to flee your home for any reason is deeply traumatic.

But with no place that will receive you, your prospects are even grimmer.

The United States used to be the world’s leading destination for refugees, until the current administration began implementing new, more stringent policies. This week the White House announced it will limit the number of refugees admitted next year to 18,000. That will be the lowest number in the history of refugee resettlement in America, just at the time that the number of refugees across the world is growing. Our average annual refugee goal has been 95,000. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/us/politics/trump-refugees.html, and https://mailchi.mp/mnchurches/3oj1r65kov-2757197?e=062bae3914, and for a statement from the MN Council of Churches on the new refugee policy, see https://mailchi.mp/mnchurches/3oj1r65kov-2757197?e=062bae3914)

This is not the America of Emma Lazarus’ poem,

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Our nation, of course, has never been like that. Nativist tendencies in our country have given rise to a long, troubled history with refugees and immigrants. Ironically, Emma Lazarus wrote that poem in 1883, one year after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first blatant attempt to exclude people wanting to immigrate from nations outside Europe. The Statue of Liberty – on which the Lazarus poem is placed – arrived in New York Harbor in 1895, the same year that Congress passed the Alien Contract Labor Law, forbidding the importing of immigrant labor. This has been our history.

The desire of some to limit refugees and immigrants of color and non-Christians and poor people from our land will soon collide with the emerging reality of the rising tide of refugees from global violence and, increasingly, migrants from the climate crisis. The U.S., a nation of indigenous peoples and immigrants, ought to be in the forefront of the global response to the crisis.

Given the current state of our world, exile is perhaps the most apt biblical metaphor for our age. All of us are exiles of one kind or another, whether fleeing violence, as in Syria and South Sudan and Cameroon, or being forcibly removed from home, as in Myanmar and China, or living in a disintegrating society, as in this land. We live in exile from one another, isolated “alien others” to our neighbors and within our communities, cut off from the dream that was America.

As a friend says, “One can be in exile without ever having to leave home.”

And, as people of faith, we live in exile from our God and from what God hopes for us and for the human community.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Jeremiah was the prophet of exile. In the opening lines of the book of Jeremiah God tells the prophet, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)

Those lines become the script for the prophet as he prepares the Israelites for their judgment and defeat – to be overthrown and destroyed – and for the suffering they will endure, and, eventually, for their restoration.

Walter Brueggemann says the book of Jeremiah was

“designed to walk Jews into, through, and beyond the reality of destruction and exile…(It) is…a sustained meditation upon the abyss caused by destruction and enacted through Babylon, an abyss about which Judaism has never ceased to reflect.” (https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-4_Jeremiah/22-4_Brueggemann.pdf)

The abyss for the Hebrew people is exile, and there’s no denying its life-choking reality. Exile plucks up and pulls down.

We would do well to peer into the abyss of our own time, whether that’s the collapsing cohesion of our communities, or the earth overheating from our pursuit of fossil-fuel energy, or the millions of our sisters and brothers wandering homeless across the globe, looking for a safe place, even at our own borders.

We are, all of us, exiles from the world God envisioned for the human family and for this good earth. These biblical texts want us to look into the abyss of our own making, hang up our harps, stop singing, sit down, and weep.

The prophet goes down to that river of despair and meets the psalmist and the rest of us there – and then he offers…a word of hope. He tells them that God will never abandon them. That God is with them, even in their anguish. Just as our Christian tradition moves from the agony of the cross to the open and empty tomb, so the prophet journeys through the night and takes us toward the coming dawn.

Contrast the bitter despair of Psalm 137 with the positive, redemptive tone Jeremiah eventually reaches:

Thus says… the God of Israel, to all the exiles…sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters… multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

The prophet offers a way to diminish the exile in which we are trapped. The gloom of the psalmist is pierced and transformed by not giving up on the future. Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. If we cannot return home, then let’s make home here, and let’s do it in a way that benefits others. Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your own welfare.

The story of the Exile matters because we see ourselves in it. It teaches us that the way out of the enveloping hopelessness that defines exile and characterizes life in our time is to get up and go to work, to advocate for the least among us, to seek the welfare of the city and all its inhabitants, to set aside the privilege some of us have so it doesn’t work against the well-being of others, and to trust that God has not left us and that God is at work in our midst.

Next week on World Communion Sunday we will be led in worship by a group of young musicians from South Africa. They sing out of a history of exile in their own land, and with their song, like Jeremiah, they point to a new day.

They call themselves 29:11, after verse 11 of Jeremiah 29: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

To give you a future with hope. For exiles, that means returning home. After 70 years the Israelites came back. They “went up” to Jerusalem, their city. They came back to rebuild.

The plan I have for you, says the Lord, is to give you a future with hope.

For all of us, that means finding a place where we can raise our children and grandchildren, where we can live without fear, and where we can know the love and justice of God.

We all need a place like that. We call it home.

By the grace of God, and working together, we will get there.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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