October 10, 2010
My life has been pretty wonderful lately. Saying that sounds strange to my own ears, because there has been a tremendous amount of stress with David’s heart trouble. To be brutally honest when I vowed 3 years ago to love him in sickness and in health I had not pictured three months of him living with an irregular heartbeat, undergoing 7 different “cardioversions” to try and shock his heart back to regular rhythm, and scary conversations in the doctor’s office about his increased risk for “Sudden Cardiac Death.” I know those of you who have had loved ones with illnesses know how scary it is to hear words come out of a doctor’s mouth and wonder if your loved one is going to live or die.
Forgive me if what I’m sharing seems too personal, my preaching teacher would be so disappointed in me. But I want to let you in on a big preacher secret. I don’t know if it is universal secret but it is unequivocally truly for Dee and me. Whenever we preach, we are preaching more to ourselves than we are to you.
On any given Sunday you may feel like the words of the sermon are aimed directly at you- like we’ve been looking into your life for our material, but in reality, the mistakes from our own lives are quite enough fodder to preach a lifetime of sermons about.
This Sunday I am preaching on a scripture that other preachers in other churches may be speaking on as well, but to me it feels like God wrote me a personal letter when I read the words of Jeremiah 29. The scripture itself is a letter, and of course it was not written to you or to me but to all those in exile during the prophet Jeremiah’s time. The letter came through Jeremiah, but he makes it clear that it is God’s message he brings and not his own. Around the year 579, before the Common Era, the Israelites were taken over by the Babylonians and sent away from Jerusalem and into exile.
The Israelites were true exiles, having been forced to leave the land they had always known as home. Some of you have lived in Livingston your entire lives- can you imagine being forced to leave by a political power that came in and conquered your homeland? The Israelites were forced to leave the place where they had grown up and raised their children. If you want to know exactly how terrible it is to live in exile read Psalm 137. The Psalmist describes captors that taunt those they have captured as they ask them to sing happy songs of their homeland and mock them. Can you imagine being driven from your home and then mocked? Might you even be so filled with anger you would ask God to destroy the children of your enemies as Psalm 137 suggests? Exile is not good. Exile is the unexpected, the unplanned. Exile is where you find yourself when you look at your life and say, “things aren’t supposed to be like this.”
Fortunately for us, we will have never and will never (except for Mrs. Agnes!) be deported from our homes and sent to live in exile. If you are anything like me, you may have experienced a moment when your life doesn’t match with your expectations. You may have a moment where you realize that your reality doesn’t met up with your dreams of the way your life might be. And in our worst moments like this, we may get a small glimpse of what it might be like to live in exile.
Directly into the jarring awareness that all is not right, the prophet Jeremiah speaks a word. In fact, Jeremiah speaks God’s word into the lives of those in exile. To the Israelites under Babylonian captivity God said, “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.”
God is saying, make a home in exile. Stop waiting for your life to be something different than it is. Stop waiting to be able to return home before you start living. Make a life here. Marry, have children, let your children marry. I’m not sure whether these words would have been comforting to me in exile or not. If my instructions are to make a life in exile, to marry and have children and see my children married, that means I’m not going home for a while. In fact, the Israelites didn’t go home for a while. They were in exile for 70 years. According to the life expectancy of the time, this would have been just what Jeremiah is describing, two generations. While in exile, some would die, some would be born, some would marry, and all would grow older. The Israelites could not put their lives on hold until God brought them back to their home. They had to make a home, even if it was in exile.
The instruction God gives to make a home in exile speaks volumes to me. As I said before, while I might not go so far as to call it exile, my life today looks a little different than my original plan. For instance, I’m 34 and I drive a mini-van but I don’t have any children. Exile? No. Exactly what I expected from my life? Not exactly that either. In the last month it has begun to dawn on me slowly how serious my husband’s health situation is. At age 41 he is living with chronic atrial fibrillation that is causing a weakening of his heart. We have cancelled visits from out of town relatives, lunches with friends, trips to friends’ weddings, and other life appointments so that we could be ready at the drop of a hat to do what needed to be done for David’s health. Exile? Not really, but some days it has seemed that way to me. When I read Jeremiah’s words to the Israelites it was as if God was speaking directly to me. Want to know what God was saying? “Yes, you’re in exile- welcome! Make a home here.” My life may not be exactly as I planned it to be but this is my life. This reality is where I am supposed to live, and love. This reality- not some perfect dream that never gets actualized is the reality God had in mind for me.
You may remember that I said my life has been wonderful lately. I want to get back to the part about the beauty of exile. The beauty of living in exile is that God is present there with you. God was there among the Israelites, living under Babylonian rule. God even promised blessings to them as they were in exile. God promised fertility and growth. God promised that they would have children; that their gardens would grow and that even if their lives were not exactly what they had planned, that they were home.
Is your life right now not exactly what you had in mind? Do you feel some days like you are living in exile? WELCOME HOME. God is saying to you: “Make a home here.” God has given us the most beautiful blessing and it is called the present moment. The moment you are in right here and now.
My present reality, my seeming exile, has brought so many gifts for David and I. We have grown closer as a couple as our priorities have been shifted. I have been reminded of why I fell in love with him in the first place, his sense of humor and his kindness. We have seen movies together, enjoyed more meals together. We have talked about things that really matter. We have joined hands and faced scary news together, and we have rejoiced and thanked God when things have gone well. If this is exile, we’re going to plant a garden and stay awhile.
God asked the Israelites to do one more thing besides building a home in exile. God asked the people to bless the land. God said, “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.” Bless the land God says, whose welfare is tied up in your own. Throughout the Bible, this difficult word comes to us that we should pray for and love our enemies. In this phrase about praying for the land while the Israelites in exile, we understand that the welfare of our enemies is tied up with our own welfare. These words echo Christ’s words to “pray for those who persecute you.”
Perhaps the real challenge is to thank God for the exile. It seems to me that if we could remember to thank God for the situation even when we feel like we are in the midst of exile, we might be able to see more clearly God’s blessing for us in this very present moment.
I want to challenge us this morning to live fully into the present that God has for us. Even if your present feels more like exile than what you had planned for your life, God’s blessing is here, with you, in the present. We have been challenged to make a home in the present. We’ve been challenged to plant gardens of contentment and watch them grow. We’ve been challenge to share the joy of living fully into the present with future generations.
There is a wonderful quote I would like to end with this morning. “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today? Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” (Babatunde Olatunji). May we live fully into the present moment that God has given us. May we make a home, even in exile. Amen.