Insurgency inevitably emerges. Uncertainty abounds. Counterinsurgency fights back. Counter-revolutionaries get funding from other governments. There’s a sense of chaos. The chaos can last for a long time. It usually lasts until people remember who they are. Who and whose they are—until the narrative of who they are is so embraced that they realize exile is a state of mind. They reclaim their moral and theological core and forge a new and renewed path. Exile is a path. It can also become a pathology.
There was a time not too long ago when our church was in a time of exile. We were in exile because our denomination had been taken over by forces that tried to rewrite what it was to be Baptist. Our 2003 disinvitation to a Green Lake conference was a symptom of a larger issue. We found ourselves constantly articulating why we deserved to be at the table with our sisters and brothers. Churches were getting kicked out of the denomination. Faithful American Baptists were called heretics for advocating inclusion of all God’s people. People were denied ordination. We were feeling like we were in exile. Do you remember the feeling of betrayal? That’s the constant thread that runs through the letters in this book.
Jeremiah must have felt in a similar way. He lamented the fact that no matter how much he told the people that they needed to amend their ways or be thrown into exile, they ignored him or laughed at him. They even favored prophets that told them what they wanted to hear. Jeremiah the realist was ignored.
At some point, he needed to change his tune. Today’s scripture is that moment. Jeremiah spends the first half of his book telling people that they were going to be thrown into exile. Now that they were there, did it make sense to continue putting them down?
No. Jeremiah told them to build houses. He told them to plant vineyards. He told them to have children. Hold marriage celebrations. Even pray for the deliverance and the welfare of the city in which you find yourselves. Is this giving up? Is Jeremiah telling the people to just acquiesce?
No, he was asking them to do something more radical. The Babylonian army expected the Hebrew people to disappear. They wanted them to be so humiliated that they would turn their heads toward the wall and simply give up. And there’s the transforming initiative that Jeremiah gives them. Build, plant, marry, have babies, pray for your enemies’ welfare. If you do that, then you’ll live. You’ll not only live, you’ll thrive.
What if, when a team loses a close game that they all just give up on the rest of the season? They stop believing in themselves. And they are long gone. The test of a team is to see how they step up in the midst of adversity.
The church I served in San Francisco was a church that identified with the concept of exile. Within an eight month span of time, they lost their denomination, their pastor and their church building. They were disfellowshipped from the Southern Baptist Convention because they supported women in ministry and the LGBT community. Their pastor later resigned for health reasons. Finally, their church building was a torched in a hate crime. They wrote about the exile in their vision and mission statement. Here’s a portion of that statement:
“We believe that we have chosen to be a people in exile. We are alienated from the traditional places where we once found identity, security, and power. Like Israel in Babylon, we remember the prophet's call to take on a new identity, to see the world in a new way. We discover that our wandering takes on purpose and meaning, for it is precisely here in exile, that we can learn what it means to trust.”
And yet, the exile can be a bit much. When I arrived there, a year and a half after the fire, the church was meeting in a storefront. On the walls were beautiful black and white pictures of the burned out church. It was important for us to look at and reflect upon those images. But after a while, they got us demoralized. So, on one Pentecost Sunday we ritually took down the pictures, focusing not so much on the burned shell of our past, but looking forward to a brighter future.
You know, when we finally left our Mid-American Baptist region and affiliated with the Rochester-Genesee Region, we started using our energy in a different way. We no longer spent our energy responding to the agenda of another group. Instead, we started using that energy for new ministries. It was around that time that we started doing intensive refugee resettlement. We started amping up our involvement with our sister church in Nicaragua. Our Bell Choir went on three tours.
And here we are spending time remembering our stories, claiming our stories, articulating our stories and celebrating our stories. In exile, we did not give up. We built houses and repaired our aging building. We planted vineyards, even a garden on site. We celebrated marriages and holy unions. We dedicated our young, baptized our youth and adults, buried our dead and through it all celebrated life. We lived on, in spite of exile
So think about this. If you have ever felt left behind. If your known world has crumbled. If you find yourself in uncharted territory. Plant some seeds. Tend the soil you’re in. Pray for those around you, even the leaders—now there’s a radical thought. Hold your festivals. Don’t be defined by exile. It is not the final word. But also don’t wait until exile has ended to live your life. Live it now. Celebrate it now. For God is with us in the exile, perhaps even more noticeable. And we’ll notice as we plant our field and celebrate our banquets and birth our children—we’ll notice that there are companions along the way. We are not alone. We are blessed by family friends, sojourners who remind us of who we are.
I can’t think of a better representation of God than the one who stands by us in exile, saying that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. A light in the distance and we are strangely drawn to that light and we travel there alongside our companions in the exile. And they call that companionship in exile, the church of Jesus Christ. The local manifestation of which is UBC.
Thanks be to God who is with us in the midst of exile. For this God encourages us to live on, in spite of exile.
©February 6, 2011