September 15, 2019
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 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. 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 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.
I couldn’t tell you what made me feel at home. Maybe it was the sound of the waves against the pink Mull granite, or the smell of the wood stove. Maybe it was the candlelight against the white-washed stone walls, or the smell of scones with Black Currant jam in the Common Room of the Camas Outdoor Center in Scotland. It might have been the sounds of children playing, or the feel of a friend’s baby lying on my chest, or the familiar feel of my favorite jumper and wool socks tucked into my Chocos. Whatever it was, last week, away in Scotland, I felt at home. I missed my husband, and I missed all of you, but there was a peace of coming back to a part of myself that I had missed. I was in a place that had shaped me, where the work of doing life together helped me to step more fully into who God has created me to be. It was a good homecoming. Kayaking, hiking, cooking food together, doing the washing up after meals, weeding in the garden and harvesting vegetables in the midst of a newly planted woodland, I felt at home. But then it was time to walk the mile and a half up the track, a simple path covered with wood planks over the Scottish moors, onto a bus, to a ferry, to a train to an airport to come back to the states. Twelve hours after leaving, I walked through the doors of our church house, into our Session meeting. And I don’t know if it was the sound of the air conditioning unit humming away or the feel of the chair, maybe it was the faces that I had been holding in prayer, or the plants that are filling this space, but it was the same sense of being home, thousands of miles away from where I started. We got to work, sharing about what God was doing in this place, about the joyful gaggle of children in worship, the new friends who keep arriving, the plans for yesterday’s homecoming festival or the excitement of folks gathering to plan how to create a children’s church program, but I saw the work of doing life together shaping us to step more fully into who God has created us to be.
There are homecomings all through scripture. They’re sometimes stories of returning, but more often than not, they’re about finding yourself at home in a place that is new. From Abraham and Sarah, to the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, to the Disciple’s recognizing themselves at home among the Gentiles, the Homecoming’s in our tradition are full of surprising places becoming home. The book of Jeremiah is no different. The people have been carried off to captivity in Babylon, and yearn to return home to Jerusalem and the land that has shaped them for generations. The prophets of the day, who function much like Op-Ed editors in our time, lay out what’s wrong with being a Hebrew in this foreign land. This isn’t a culture like what they had back in Palestine. There’s no temple, the people are under the control of a colonizing power that is appropriating what is best about their culture, and the people the Hebrew find themselves among are focused on amassing wealth and power off the work of the oppressed. These other prophets share visions of God bringing the people out of exile soon. It’s going to happen any day, so don’t get comfortable, they say. Stick to your people, they preach. And among all this, Jeremiah sees the challenges of where the people are, but the Living God is also present in the mess. There is a future that God has prepared for the people, and their fear of losing themselves is closing them off to what is possible, because even in a time of oppression and struggle, the gifts of God for the people of God are available. So Jeremiah shares where he sees God at work; in the building of homes and living in them; in gardens that are planted and bringing forth the bounty of the land; in the marriages of young people, and the increase of the family of God. In learning how to live, not apart, but together, in community with those who are different, of different faiths and cultures and customs, Jeremiah sees the call to become more fully who God has dreamed of Her people being.
Beloved, we can feel like we are in exile these days, can’t we? Like we’ve been carried off into a nation we don’t recognize, with leaders who don’t know the Loving, Liberating, Transformative God who has illuminated our lives, and given us a heart for our neighbors, while they try to co-opt our traditions. Others of us in this place have experienced incredible hurt and disappointment at the hands of Churches, having to leave to maintain our sense of personal integrity, leaving so that our children can grow up knowing God’s love, and also how to love their neighbors, friends, and family who identify as LGBTQ, of different faiths, or who don’t fit into the narrow mold of the Evangelical American Dream. Still other’s of us can feel the exile of loneliness, of the family member or friend who is no longer with us, or find ourselves in a new city, away from the friends we had, trying to find community. And it can be tempting to just want to wait it out. It will pass, we think. Next year’s election will fix it all. Maybe I’ll just take a break from Church. Maybe I’ll just move to another city where it’s easier to make friends. But the liberating and hard reality is that, this is where we are. If we want to live in a different world, the challenge of the Gospel isn’t to accept the world as it is, but to partner with the living God in its transformation into a home for all peoples. We can flee from the news, or we can step into living into a different narrative about what it means to be a citizen, a neighbor, and actually act to overcome the forces of this world, the powers and principalities that dehumanize our neighbors. We can create a community that overcomes the darkness and live into a different world, in the midst of this current exile, and brings together those seeking God’s power to honor the face of the Lord in one another. We can give up on Church, or like so many of you here, we can find another community that follows Jesus, and raise our kids in something new that we create together, a place where we don’t have to choose between our faith and our questions, between our love of neighbor and the love of God, a family of faith where we can be fully human, and fully encounter God, without having to hide parts of who we are. We can bemoan the challenges of creating community and meaningful friendships, or we can create the kind of connections we long for, not only for ourselves but for others.
Last week, returning home to Camas, and home to Baltimore, I realized that while I loved my time in Scotland, and honor the ways that experience transformed my life, it wasn’t returning to some promised land. It was a reminder of what is possible when we risk being fully ourselves, when we risk finding ourselves home, in blooming where we find ourselves planted. I returned home from Camas, with that same sense of possibility I had when I moved there ten years ago. That sense of possibility, that hope for a future, it goes with us, wherever the winds of politics, our journey of faith and doubts, wherever we find ourselves seeking the good gifts of life together. Beloved, let us risk finding ourselves home in this place, and risk letting all heaven break loose among us. Let us seek the welfare of those around us, and our own wholeness. For in that journey, we will find a future beyond anything we can dream of. We can live into the promises of a God who journey’s with us, and can teach us how to find ourselves home. Amen.