Shalom in Exile

Sermon for Oct 21, 2012,  the 21st Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, 10-14

1  These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles,

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and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

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.

10   For thus says the LORD: 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.  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.

1Pet. 2:11-12

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.  12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

Shalom in Exile

Where is home?  We used to tell our boys that wherever daddy and mommy live, that’s home.  We needed a flexible definition.  During our time overseas we lived in seven different places – each one, in turn, was “home.”  But of course, in another sense all seven were places that to us, as Americans, were away from home.

Some of us feel a strong connection to the home we were born or raised in as children, even after long years away.  But most of us have had the experience of returning as an adult to that childhood place and finding it odd; either it changed, or we changed, or both, and now it’s not home anymore.

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Almost all of us have come to live here from somewhere else.  Is this home?  It should be; this is our country, America, and this community is where we live now, so in those ways it’s home here.

So then, why do we feel this sense of not being fully at home?  Maybe we could ask, is there anyplace in which we would feel fully at home?

This is part of the human condition.  Our story of origins, our foundational story in Genesis is a story of a perfect home from which we were quickly exiled; Adam and Eve left the garden, never to return.  They and all their descendants have lived as exiles ever since.

The Prophets and the quest for home

Many of us have been involved in the project of reading the whole bible in 90 days.  Now we are in the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  We are newly aware that their common theme is the problem of home.  For the people of Israel, the promised land was meant to be home, but it was complicated.  They understood that their homeland was a gift that could be withdrawn.  They fell prey to mighty empires that drove them from their land.  They became exiles, living on foreign soil.

One of the key words of the prophets of the exile is “return.”  The people who are living as exiles longed to return home.  But it was not only the people who had left the land, so had their rightful king, the Lord their God.  In one of the saddest scenes in the Old Testament, after the one about Adam and Eve leaving the garden, is the one Ezekiel saw, of the glory of the Lord rising up from the ruined temple and leaving.

In Exile at home

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews have returned to the land – but it’s not their own.   It is under foreign occupation.  They consider themselves exiles; it’s not home as long as the Romans rule.  The Lord, their rightful King has not returned in triumphant victory to Zion, as they had hoped; at least, not yet.  They longed to hear a voice, crying out “prepare the way for the Lord, build a roadway in the wilderness” so that the Lord may return to Zion as king; then it will be home.

In many ways we are like aliens and exiles, as 1 Peter says, even here in our community. Our culture is hyper-individualistic, whereas we

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believe in the common-good.  Our culture wants to define humans beings as “consumers,” but we insist on being defined as bearers of the image of God.  Our culture thinks economic success is the only valid measure of worth, while we maintain that the most important values are ones that cannot be measured: love, compassion, friendship, loyalty, purity, faithfulness, and mercy.

Options in Exile: Culture wars

How do we live in exile?  Let’s consider the options. We can consider ourselves at war with the culture of our exile.  This means taking every opportunity to fight it, oppose it, protest it, and condemn it.  This is what the zealots of Jesus’ day wanted: fight the evil occupiers to the death.  Cleanse the land of bad-guys.  Re-take the homeland.  Should that be our quest?  Should we be culture-warriors, famous for anger and judgmentalism?

Re-make Eden

Another option for exiles like us is to try to re-make Eden on earth.  Some of us may remember Joni Mitchell singing “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”  She was channeling  the Adam and Eve narrative, but at that time, 1969, the quest of her generation was to remake the garden of Eden, on earth.  The song was called “Woodstock.”

It turns out that the Woodstock festival was not the Garden of Eden after all – especially not after the rain.  Neither Woodstock nor any other

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human attempt at establishing a utopian community on earth has succeeded; in fact, most are quite short-lived.

Religious communities that try to establish a new Eden for themselves in their culture of exile often turn inwards and become isolated.  They, like the Essenes of Jesus’ day who moved out to the desert to found the utopian Qumran community and copy the Dead Sea Scrolls all day, (in between their obsessive ritual baths), seek to become the isolated “righteous few.”  And nobody notices them.  They become irrelevant to the rest of the world.  Should isolation be our quest, here in exile?

The Letter to the Exiles

Is there another option for exiles like us besides culture wars and isolation?  Is there a third way?  Yes there is.  It comes to us first from the prophet Jeremiah.   The text we read is from his letter to the exiles who had been deported to Babylon.

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.

Instead of sharpening swords and planning the mother of all battles against the bad guys, or attempting a utopian community of isolation, Jeremiah has a vision of an alternative way of living as an exile, away from home.  God’s will, he says, is to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”

Seek the Shalom

The word “welfare” is a translation of the Hebrew, “shalom.”  Shalom is a huge word, meaning welfare, in the broadest sense.  It also includes peace, well-being, wholeness, and wellness.  Seek the total well-being, the shalom of the place of your exile; this is our mandate.

What does this mean in practice?  Notice all the active verbs: “Build houses, live in them, plant gardens, eat what they produce; have weddings, have babies, multiply and increase” – participate in the life of the community.  This is the opposite of the strategy of opposition and the opposite of withdrawal and isolation.  This is about active engagement, even to the extent of bringing the concerns for the well-being of the place of our exile before God in our prayers:

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7 But seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf….

And this admonition comes with a promise:

“for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 

or as it says literally,

“for in its shalom, you will find your shalom.”

Instead of seeking a conflict or withdrawal, we seek shalom; peace; well-being for the place of our exile, and in its peace, in its well-being, in its shalom, we find our our peace, well-being, our shalom.

Christians as Exiles

Does this apply to us, today?  Yes it does.  We Christians, like the Jewish people of faith in exile in Babylon, are also to consider ourselves aliens to our world.  Peter calls us “aliens and exiles.”

The crucial question is, in what way are we to be oriented to our world as exiles?  Neither as in a permanent state of conflict, nor of withdrawal, but rather we are an outpost community from another kingdom, living according to that kingdom’s values even while away from home.

As an engaged outpost community, we neither allow ourselves to be seduced by the  dominant cultural values that are at odds with our core beliefs, nor do we retreat.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.  12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God” (1Pet. 2:11-12)

Honorably” and “honorable deeds” translate a word that means goodness in its deepest sense.  It is another way of saying, seek the shalom of your place of exile.

How to seek Shalom: follow the pain

How?  Simple: follow the pain, and be a part of the solution.

Where has the culture of selfish individualism, greed, consumerism, and entertainment-ism caused suffering?

Where has the culture of discrimination and hostility to those who differ from the main-stream majority damaged people?

Where have people been ignored, cast off or neglected by the glamor or athlete  standards of our day?

Where is the pain, the lack of well-being, the lack of wholeness in our community?

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Where is the need for shalom?

Are there homeless people?  Seek their shalom, for in their shalom, we will find our shalom.

Are there hungry people?  Seek their shalom, for in their shalom, we will find our shalom.

Are there unemployed or addicted people?  Seek their shalom, for in their shalom, we will find our shalom.

Are there people who have been excluded or marginalized because of race or disability or sexual orientation?  Seek their shalom, for in their shalom, we will find our shalom.

One concrete opportunity

This is the promise, and this is our mandate.   We need look no further than down the street at the children in our schools.  Some have special needs, some have only one parent at home, or are living with relatives who are not their parents.  Some need extra help with their school work.

Why are we here?  Why are we on this planet, in this neighborhood at this time?  To seek the shalom of those children.

God is at work in the world right now.  God is at work, by the Spirit, putting in our hearts the desire to be a part of seeking the shalom of our community.  What can we do?  Some of us can tutor children.  All of us can, as Jeremiah said, “pray to the LORD on [their] behalf.”

After this service, I hope you are planning to stay.  We will have an open conversation about new and creative ways we can be engaged in seeking the shalom of our community, made possible by a generous donation from someone who knows a lot about seeking and finding shalom.  This is part of what God is doing.

Let the last words be the Lord’s words through Jeremiah:

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.

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