Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Sunday Sermon (Oct 13): Improvising in Exile

 October 13, 2013 

St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego 
Year C: Proper 23 (Jeremiah 29:1, 2-7 and Luke 17:11-19

Jeremiah’s words, at first hearing, have a pleasing ring to them. The little snippet we hear sounds pretty, and comforting: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat from them; expand the family clan and seek the welfare of the city where you live, because your well-being is tied up in the well-being of the entire community. This sounds almost utopian, doesn’t it? How nice, we think. How true. What a wise and practical and encouraging word God sends his people, for their own good.

The passage is beautiful, and inspiring. But when we step back to look at where it fits in the longer story of the people of Israel, we see a different angle: what a bitter, hard, practically impossible word it seemed upon arrival. Its original hearers were the elite families of Israel who had been taken captive by a conquering empire and were now living in exile in Babylon. Imagine the Queen Mother and her compatriots listening to these words in a small courtyard of the city that seemed nothing but evil to them: You’d better settle in, and settle down. Because you’re not going back to Jerusalem any time soon, and a longer stay in this sin city of Babylon is actually what God wills. On a human level, this disappointing word from a prophet would be hard enough to hear. You’ll probably never see your home again.

But we also have to take into account the fact that Jeremiah, at this point, is just one prophet among many, and this message directly contradicts much of the established wisdom at the time about the way God was supposed to work. You see, God had saved Jerusalem from destruction in the past, when the Assyrians threatened the city, and before the exile, it was largely assumed and proclaimed that God would do the same this time around. Many prophets were saying as much: This is the way the God of Israel works with and for his people. This is God’s will, they said. The city will be saved. Even after the exile, these other prophets kept up the rosier drumbeat, proclaiming God’s favor: Don’t worry. We’ll return to Jerusalem before you know it, they said. Against this comforting orthodoxy, Jeremiah sounds shriller than ever: No, not this time. Jerusalem is utterly destroyed. Now, you must learn to live with -- and bless! -- your captors. God is doing something new. But oh, how hard! Imagine those once-proud eyes looking down at the babylonian bricks beneath their feet as this unwelcome vision of living out their days away from their homeland washed over them: Could they see God at work in this unexpected and painful way, apart from the places and ways they had always relied on God? Would they be able accept this new word and live into it? Could they allow themselves to bless and be blessed by a place they couldn’t tolerate?

Unfortunately, political exile continues to be a physical reality for millions of people in war-ravaged societies like Syria today. Too many regular people, too many children, are caught in the crosshairs of conflicts that leave homes in rubble and ashes. I wonder, with some caution, how we might consider our own relationship to those in exile even as we enjoy this country’s relative stability? In what ways do we experience the terrifying powerlessness of exile even as we remain relatively safe in our homes?

For example, who in this great room could say that they grew up in the home that their father built, surrounded by orchards that their grandmother planted? Whose children will tend the very same land, or even contribute to the same city, where you worked and lived and loved? How many among us have needed to relocate due to familial, economic or even political necessity? Economically, if not politically, we are a culture that is full of geographic exiles. We know the restlessness that comes from being unrooted, even if it is often by choice.

And then, on top of this constant displacement, we experience other forms of exile: those caused by our own sins and shortcomings, like the recovering alcoholic whose adult children are slow to forgive, and those forms of exile that seem entirely imposed upon us, like the loss of a job, a relationship, an entire way of being. You know the feeling: This isn’t how it was supposed to be. I don’t belong here. How did I end up here? I hate it here. When can I go back to the wonderful way things used to be? Why can’t I go back?

One temptation, when this feeling of exile sets in, can be to make a “fetish of exile,”* and resist all efforts to belong fully to a new place and time. This is the mindset that God speaks out against, through Jeremiah: don’t retreat into your confusion and sadness, God says. Make connections, make commitments, even though you don’t feel like it. Through blessing others, even when you don’t want to, you too will be blessed.

I knew a woman, Marie, who felt very much in exile in the wake of her divorce. It was not a divorce that she wanted, and it shattered her dreams and her vision of what her family was supposed to be. More than that, it seemed to be a situation that was apart from the will of God: certainly God wanted her children to grow up with a mother and a father, right? She had experienced the graces of happily married parents in her own childhood, and it seemed obvious that this was how God worked best, how things were supposed to be, what God intended. When her husband left her and her adolescent children for the woman he’d been having an affair with, and more surely when the divorce papers were signed, she found herself in exile as a single mother, as a divorcee. It was a land she wanted nothing to do with.

Yet after Marie moved to a new town to be nearer to other family support, she did not curl up in her own little house of exile. She eventually bought her own home and made friends with the neighbors. She opened up her spare room to a young woman who was going through her own painful divorce and stayed up late into the night listening to a very different set of sorrows. She started new curriculum initiatives at the middle school where she worked. Now, these may seem like small things, but they are actions that sought the peace of Marie’s new community. In many ways, Marie still bitterly lamented her exile into the land of the divorced. But her actions, her willingness to be a blessing to others, offered the very means by which she found some peace and tangible comfort.

Now I’m not claiming that Marie’s divorce was God’s will, but I think the divine challenge in such an exile is similar: What is God’s new word to me today, right where I am? How can I live as God’s child wherever I find myself, even if it is not a place I want to be?

In his own way, the tenth leper, the one who falls on his face before Jesus with praise, is open to the surprising ways God has worked, and improvises. All ten men who have asked for Jesus’ mercy have already been blessed: we hear that they were made well. But this one Samaritan man -- the foreigner who was least expected to know how to behave with regard to God -- does exactly what might have been expected of him: he disobeys Jesus’ clear command! Jesus, after all, has told them to go show themselves to the priests, but this man turns back before he makes it to the temple. Why? Because he sees the reality of his new situation, and he can’t help but respond with great faith and praise to the changes he notices. And because of his openness, his willingness to see the unexpected work of God right before his eyes -- priests or no priests! -- he is doubly blessed.

At the end of the day, we are all exiles from Eden; we, like the lepers, call out to Jesus for mercy and healing from the fringes of the kingdom of God, which some days is obviously near and some days feels painfully far. But do we recognize the healing that is happening even as we walk along the road toward where we think Jesus already told us to go? We’re trying our best to follow directions; we cling to whatever word we have received from God in days or years past: Go to the priests. Go back to Jerusalem. But today, Jesus and Jeremiah try to break through our tunnel vision: Open your eyes to what is happening right now, along the road! You may not feel like you’re at home yet, but God is still working, right here and now. Don’t be afraid to respond and improvise. Some days, this whole bewildering world, our society, our nation, our very lives, seem so clearly not what we planned or hoped for or even come to expect; it’s not what we’d like, not what we’re comfortable with, not the way it’s supposed to be. We have so little to cling to -- why not those old visions? But today, God reminds us to be flexible. Ditch the old script. Listen! Look around! Improvise! Seek God’s will in this present moment and place.

Open your eyes to the unexpected graces of God. Seek the welfare of that wretched city you find yourself in, or this polarized nation with its crazy and messed up Congress. Give glory to God when you notice amazing shifts and transformations happening, even if someone ten feet away might not have noticed your healing. It’s not mean demand, an obligation meant to break our backs. It’s an invitation. For in doing so, God promises, you’ll be doubly blessed. In seeking peace of this ugly and broken world, he says, you’ll find your peace.

When you are quiet, when you are praying, when you are driving in your car: what aspect of your life, or our society, causes you to feel the most distance, disconnection, even repulsion? Where do you feel the need to stay at arms length? What reality makes you want to curl up, stand back, just step away?

The lepers cried out, even from a distance: Lord, have mercy. End our alienation. And they were all healed. But the one who stopped in his tracks, realizing the deeper meaning of the skin deep changes, he turned all the way around and ran back to that same merciful Lord. And he was more than healed. He was home.

The Rev. Laurel Mathewson

*This term and temptation is described by Edward Said in the following article: Weaver, Alain Epp, "On Exile: Yoder, Said, and a Theology of Land and Return," Cross Currents, 2003.

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