what exile feels like

Sermon 10-8-17

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

God’s people are really having a tough time of it. They’ve been promised a land of their own, but that land keeps getting annexed, conquered, claimed through eminent domain, tossed from one Empire to another.

Last week, remember, Isaiah was warning King Ahaz about the dangers of allying his kingdom with the Assyrian Empire. Ahaz, of course, didn’t listen, and God’s people came under the thumb of Assyria. Not so many years later, Assyria was defeated by the Babylonian empire, and the Jews were handed off as part of the spoils. The Babylonians definitely didn’t honor any of the Assyrian agreements about the Jews being able to remain on their land and be semi-autonomous in their own government. No, the Babylonians didn’t want anything to do with God’s people. They kicked them out.

Jeremiah had been a prophet in Israel for years, and he’d been warning the leaders of God’s people that this was coming. Jeremiah wasn’t very popular – who wants to hear that they’ll be defeated by yet *another* world power or that they’ll be summarily removed from their homeland? Jeremiah got ridiculed, ostracized, imprisoned and ignored. No one wanted to hear what he had to say.

But you know how it goes with God’s prophets: even if no one listens to them, their prophecies tend to ring true eventually. When the Babylonians finally took over, they deported all the Israelites from Jerusalem and into other parts of the empire. The deportations happened in three waves: 597 BC, 587 and 582. Jeremiah, in today’s reading, is writing to the first exiles – the elders, priests, prophets and people. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem, and sending word to his neighbors who are not.


I don’t know about you, but when I try to put myself in the position of those exiled Israelites, the kind of letter I’d want from home wouldn’t necessarily be the kind of letter that Jeremiah sends.

And, to be honest, it is difficult for me to put myself in the position of the exiled Israelites. I have only ever left my home as a result of my own, autonomous decision. Some of those decisions were easier than others, but I have never been forced from my home. I understand, intellectually, that this is a privileged sort of existence in this day and age.

But I know – and so you do – sisters and brothers who HAVE been forced from their homes. If we stop for just a minute and think about folks we know who might have vivid experiences of physical, geographic exile, the list could grow very, very long:

  • I think of the S. Family – the refugee family from Syria (one of many new neighbors) that I had the joy of getting to know earlier this year, forced from their home and their country because of civil war;
  • I think of Gloria M., the Nigerian girl from Chibok who was abducted from her classroom by Boko Haram fighters in 2014, who this congregation spent years praying for, and whose return we had the privilege of celebrating this spring.
  • I think of Wildin Acosta, who I heard speak at a DCIA event a few months ago, a young man who graduated from Riverside High School here in Durham after spending nearly a year in a Georgia immigration detention center, who has been fighting deportation to Honduras, a place he fled because he was a target of the M-13 gangs there. This week, his case has been continued until December.
  • I think of Eliseo Jimenez, whose family entered sanctuary this week – voluntarily imprisoned themselves inside the Umstead Park UCC church in Raleigh in order to avoid deportation while their immigration status makes its way through the courts, a family that has been chased from one home already and is desperate not to be deported from this one.
  • I think of sisters and brothers in Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico, forced from their homes after this season’s hurricanes destroyed houses and towns.

Who else do you know who has experienced the physical, geographic reality of exile?

Even if we ourselves have never been forced from our homes, we know people who have been. We can imagine what it might feel like. We know people. We love people. We empathize with and live among people. I also think that even if we have never been physically removed from our homes, we might still know what exile feels like. I was part of a women’s retreat several years ago where we considered this question: when have we felt exiled?

The responses to that question were really powerful. There were women in the group who had been forced, physically, from their homes. One woman shared that she had been living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and even now, over a decade later, she could still feel the depth of that loss and terror and trauma.

But others in the group connected those emotions to experiences of exile that were not quite so physical or geographical: One woman talked about what it felt like to have both of her parents pass away in the same year. Another shared about the way her life’s journey had led to her to a place that was very different politically and theologically than her family of origin, and how she felt so far away from the people that raised her. And another woman shared about how, when she told her church that she had had an abortion when she was young, they shamed her, condemned her, and excluded her from the community.

We are gifted with imagination, compassion and empathy, so even if we have never been forcibly removed from our own homes, we can begin to develop a compassionate imagination for what that kind of loss might feel like. We might not have known exile, but we have felt the tips of the tentacles of emotion that being cast out, ostracized, and exiled might call up. We can begin to imagine what sort of care and compassion we would long for. We can begin.

When I try to do this, to summon up all my own small experiences of “exile” and attempt to put myself in the place of the Israelites who have been deported from the only home they’ve ever known, it seems pretty clear what kind of compassion and sympathy I would want from the people around me.

I would want to scream and rage and cry and then wrap myself up in a cozy blanket, close my eyes and fall asleep until the nightmare was over. I would want people to agree with me that this would be the best option, and bring me another pillow to keep my neck from seizing up while I slept.

But that’s me. Maybe you are calibrated differently, and your response would be something else. Maybe you would want to scream and rage and cry and then fight with all your gathered resources to change the situation. Maybe you would mount an army and instigate a revolt against the people who forced you from your home. Maybe you would be driven to swift and immediate retaliatory action.

But neither of these responses are included in Jeremiah’s letter of “comfort” and instruction to his fellow Israelites exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah does not write a letter telling the exiled Israelites to huddle up and wait it out, and he does not write a letter endorsing forcible resistance to the enemy powers.

What Jeremiah writes is, I imagine, a rather unwelcome note to those exiled Israelites.

“Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have 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; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease.”

In other words, Jeremiah says: unpack your bags. Settle in. Get used to this place, to this feeling. Your don’t have to despair, and you don’t have to revolt. Your response can be something else: your response can be to LIVE, to flourish, to build and plant and marry and celebrate. You can live HERE, too.

And I don’t know about you, but that advice would be pretty hard for me to swallow. Trauma is exhausting. It takes time to process, to feel, to move through. Getting out of bed, planting a garden and building a new house would NOT be on my initial to-do list. Jeremiah’s letter with instructions for the exiles feels like…stage 2. Maybe a very distant stage 2.

And some of the exiles never made it there. They didn’t all heed Jeremiah’s advice. Some of them refused. Some of them fled – to Egypt, of all places, where their ancestors had escaped slavery so many years ago – and they took Jeremiah with them.

But others stayed. They built houses, planted gardens, celebrated wedding feasts and the births of new babies. I imagine that those practices of tilling soil and hewing boards and baking cakes and soothing infants were what enabled the Israelites to heed Jeremiah’s continued instructions:

Because Jeremiah doesn’t stop at this insistence on picking back up and living life as if they were at home. Jeremiah also insists that part of life as God’s people – even as God’s people in exile – is also to “seek the welfare of the city where you are; pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare will you find your welfare.”

The Israelites, driven from their homes and their families and what they understand as the land that God has always promised them are instructed not only to keep living and breathing and celebrating life, but also to get engaged with their community. Jeremiah instructs them to seek the welfare of the city – THIS city, the one they probably hate, the one they did not choose, the one they have been forced into. Jeremiah instructs them to pray to God – the God of Israel, the God they thought they could only know in Jerusalem where the temple was and the priests were making sacrifices and all their ancestral history resided – to pray to God for THIS hateful, unfamiliar place.

If planting a garden is Step 2 in Jeremiah’s trauma healing process, helpful after the initial grief and processing, THIS – to embrace the current circumstances in such a way that the exiled Israelites would even become good Babylonian citizens, productive members of Babylonian society, good neighbors and co-workers and praying even for these people that conquered them and removed them from their land and cast them out of the one place that they had been certain they could worship God in the way that God wanted…that feels like Step Number 539. But Jeremiah says that this is Step #3.

Here, in Jeremiah’s Trauma Healing Program, there are 3 steps:

  1. Move.
  2. Plant/Build/Celebrate/Live.
  3. Pray for THIS place.

God’s promise has not been forfeited. Jeremiah goes on, in the next few verses, to assure the Israelites that God is still planning to gather them all back together. These are familiar verses for us, ones we trot out whenever we are uncertain about the direction of our own lives, ones that we have probably unwittingly made trite with the lack of context. You know these verses:

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. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Yes, God says, I have plans. They are revolutionary plans, plans for your good, plans for a future that is full of hope. You are exiled and dispersed now, but I will bring all of you back home. That will happen. Trust that it will.


It probably won’t happen in your lifetime. “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place,” God says. This exile is going to last a long time. The hope of my promise of return is not an immediate thing – this is a long, slow-burn of a promise. Your children’s children may be the ones who get to return home. It probably won’t be you.

That’s some cold “comfort” for exiles, for people who’ve been uprooted from all they’ve known and all they trusted.

But then, when I think about those sisters and brothers we’ve named who are experiencing exile, who are living this ancient reality in real time, I realize that Jeremiah’s wisdom is…not worthless.

The S. Family, the Syrian refugees I got to know last spring, are learning English: painstakingly, slowly, with great difficulty. It is necessary, yes, to survive here in America, but the language is also a way for them to build their home here. Z, the father of the family, probably won’t ever be fluent. The alphabet is too foreign, his life has been filled with too much trauma. He is, rightly, more worried about getting a job than mastering English grammar. He won’t ever be fully integrated into this new country of his. But A, his son, translated every word I said. He’d been in the US for three months.

I don’t know much about Gloria M’s family in particular, but I do know that her church family in Nigeria has lost 70% of its buildings and over 700,000 of our sisters and brothers have been displaced by the violence of Boko Haram. And I know that those same exiled people have worked tirelessly to build new homes, new churches, to plant gardens and celebrate the birth of new babies – even those babies fathered by Boko Haram fighters. This has not been easy. It is not intuitive. But Jeremiah’s word to the exiles – to find a way to LIVE in this foreign place – is coming alive.

You’ve witnessed the resiliency and doggedness of friends and family who’ve been cast out decided to LIVE, even in exile. You know what it looks like.

What does it look like for us? Where, in your own life, are you experiencing the beginnings of that experience of exile? What relationship or situation or place in your own life feels a little like exile? And then, what is it that you can do in that situation, that relationship, to build, to plant, to celebrate, to live as if this strange, unknown, unpleasant and unfamiliar place were actually home?

And if you aren’t feeling or being exiled right now, what is it that you can do to enable someone else to do this hard work for themselves? How can you be a supportive neighbor? Can you offer a garden plot, some building supplies, the raw materials a sister or brother needs to make some strange new place into a home? Can you attend the party, help them celebrate or pray alongside them for this place – THIS place, where our welfare is bound up together?

God is gathering us, all of us, back together. May we open our eyes and our hearts to witness to the truth of it. Amen.

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