Hope in Exile
Jeremiah 29: 4-7; 11-14
4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.
11 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.
Acts 2: 42-47
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The sermon series this week raises the question: How do we best seek the common good? I am going to lead with my conclusion and hope the blog supports it. Each passage makes a fundamental point. Jeremiah says ‘Bloom where you are planted’ and Acts says: “we find the common good when we find what we have in common.”
The Acts passage describes a community we would be hard pressed to find in real life. The willingness to learn and worship together is hard enough much less selling all that we have and putting it into a common pot for the common good. In real life, there are many couples who have trouble sharing resources within a marriage, much less extend that principle to a wider community. Our sense of personal safety, as well as our understanding of what is ‘fair’, will almost always sabotage us. In real life, the human desire for security keeps getting in the way of our generosity.
As Christians we believe every human beings share at least two attributes. We believe we are God’s child and we acknowledge that ‘All of us fall short of the glory of God.’ This latter point variously described as original sin or the total depravity of us all is out of fashion but it is our universal sinfulness that is beginning of community.
It doesn’t really take a lot of self reflection to realize that ‘there for the grace of God go I’. Unfortunately, most of us resist the deep introspection that exposes the brokenness we share with all other children of God. We give it lip service but then we explain, we rationalize, compare, distance ourselves and point to the misdeeds of others—all the while forgetting that sometimes we were just lucky not to have paid a terrible price for our decision making. Only when make that confession are our judgments tempered by humility.
Most of us have made serious errors while driving. If we are rigorously honest, our mistakes were selfish—we were in a hurry. Or, we drove while we were ‘just a little’ tipsy— because we were so close to home. We put ourselves and other people at risk. Fortunately, for the most part, our errors have not been fatal. But how often do we take the time to member our own culpability when we read of a tragic accident. How easy to talk about someone else’s DUI?
Likewise, most of us have thought and said hurtful things about other people. Most of us have bent the rules in our favor, most of us have been sexually selfish in word or deed. Few us would want our actions videotaped 24/7. It is actually very hard to live in the light. We prefer darkness more than we care to admit.
In order to find the common good we have find what we have in common. All deep connection depends upon finding what we share. When Luke writes: “all who believed were together and had all things in common”, he was not just talking about possessions. Sharing all things is about a lot more than food. He was also talking about the community that arises out of our shared brokenness. If you realize that you, too, are like every other person you encounter, your ability to empathize and to care greatly expands. You show a mindfulness and regard that is not possible if you insist in your own mind that you are somehow different. You respond to the hungry a whole lot differently if you have been hungry. Our confessions and frank acknowledgment of our limitations opens the door to new connections and new community. It allows us to walk in another shoes.
Our whole theology is based upon God’s willingness to share our experience. It is called the love of Christ. And for believers, it is how we are called to love.
I find the Jeremiah passage particularly interesting. I generally look at processes more than detail. As far as I know none of us have been captured and exiled from our homeland. But all of us have been forced to cope with situations and forces we could not control and that we would not choose. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows the sense of disconnection and isolation that goes with grief. Anyone who has lost a job knows the same. If you have struggled in a marriage, you know what it is to be lost and alone. If you have cancer, you know that you must find a way to live in a place you would never have chosen. How do any of us have life in places that have been forced upon us?
Inevitably we will ask why or how can God do such a thing? But rather than get caught in the dilemma of figuring out why the Israelites were suffering in exile—or why we must cope with hardships we don’t like, consider Jeremiah’s faith. God is in it all. We do not get to know the why of our lives. Explaining pain as God’s action to punish the disobedient (which was a common way to explain the exile) just gives us a way to avoid the reality of our helplessness. It is amazing how often we would rather be guilty than helpless. In real life, as with the Israelites, we are expected to ‘bloom where we are planted’. This is no small commitment.
When we are in exile. When we are separated and alone, it is hard to get out of bed much less bloom. How can we bloom in a desert? Some of our FIRL members live in senior living condominiums. Some residents view the downsizing of their lives, their decreasing health and the separation from what they have known as an exile. Others in exactly the same circumstance are grateful. They have lost the same things. They certainly would have chosen a different path but they continue to believe that God is in it all. They live with their glass half full. How some people live half full lives as opposed to half empty lives is a mystery—but it makes all the difference.
Aging will teach that many things that we’ve lived through had endings and consequences we could never have imagined as they were happening. In Jeremiah’s words: “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.” He is describing a God who cares for us and who promises to “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.”
This of course, does not mean we will regain our youth, or health, or the people we have loved and lost. It does mean that God is with us wherever we are. We will be restored to a relationship of trust that allows us to live each day. Each day we have the opportunity to choose life—even if we are in Babylon and even if we are in Auschwitz.
Writing such a faith claim feels almost crazy. Literally as I have been writing, I received an email about the death of a child in our congregation. And in the last week I have stood vigil with my son while his mother (my ex wife) was dying. The sheer weight of grief often makes words of faith very hard to take in. We need others; we need Jeremiah to hold our hope when we can not find it. Choosing life is not a new criteria or test of faith, it is a promise that God will find us in the darkest places of our lives. The beacon and reminder Jeremiah offered the people was that God makes plans for our good—not our harm. That promise, even when it is unbelievable, can sustain—and finally restore.
When you taste that presence, usually in community, (and often after a very dark night of our soul), we can live like we are loved. We can live like love matters. That is where life is. I can’t think of a more important common good.
Find what you have in common. Bloom where you are planted. Trust God in the deserts and in your exile. He will come. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.