About a year ago I was asked to visit a family who had recently lost their only son, a teenager, in a terrible, terrible accident. They were a local family, but they had no church home; and they were at a loss as to how to move forward with a funeral, a memorial, some way of saying goodbye to a kid who was healthy and happy just days before. How do you even begin to say goodbye? So they turned to us, to this church community, and they found me. I was stunned, frankly, by their courage in turning to a stranger. As their whole world came crashing down.
Before we met, the boy’s parents called to ask if I’d bring along some readings, anything, passages from scripture that might guide them in planning an unimaginable event. I had a list of passages handy, the usual stuff – but not one of them seemed quite right; nothing in our bible seemed gentle or accessible enough for a vulnerable family going through their own terrible hell.
So I grabbed a book of poetry on my way out the door, and that afternoon we leafed together through poems about loss, brokenness and exile. And there was one, in particular, one poem, that almost insisted on a reading. From its first lines, each of the three of us knew this was the one. This was the one that knew what wounds felt like, how sorrow soaked the sheets. So we took turns reading it. “Before you know what kindness really is,” writes poet Naomi Nye, “you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth.” It was that poem more than anything else that opened a window that afternoon, let some light in, and allowed the three of us to move forward in planning a sad and difficult funeral. “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” Sometimes there are words that read us every bit as much as we read them. “You must wake up with sorrow,” says the poet. “You must speak to it till your voice / catches the thread of all sorrows / and you see the size of the cloth.”
It’s this experience of losing things, of feeling the “future dissolve in a moment,” that Jeremiah’s addressing in this morning’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures. Whether or not you’ve lost a son – and I know some of you have – there are so many ways in which you and I know what it’s like for the “future to dissolve in a moment.” There are so many ways in which we get tossed around and flung far into exile. Losing touch with our core, our center, our soul. Fearing a future we can’t see or trust anymore.
As I went around, this week, to different study groups with this text from Jeremiah, I was reminded by many of you of all the other ways we experience exile, loss, the once certain future dissolving in a moment. You talked about losing a spouse after decades of partnership and love: the loneliness and isolation of widowhood. You talked about spiraling into depression and despair: living for days on end in the soul’s dark night. All the ways we lose touch with our core, our center. You talked about losing a job you really loved: the spiritual angst and dislocation that comes with financial uncertainty. You talked about giving birth to a child with special needs, autism, Down’s Syndrome: and the loss of other dreams, other visions along the way.
All these ways we get tossed around and flung far into exile. And almost every time, it feels as if the future’s dissolving – maybe in a flash, maybe frame by frame – but it feels as if the center just can’t hold and the relationships we counted on just can’t survive the unraveling of time.
And that’s what’s going on for Jeremiah’s neighbors, colleagues, friends. Exile. A devastating national disaster in the sixth century bce. A dismantling of their beloved city, Jerusalem, forcing most of them to abandon homes and neighborhoods and relocate in Babylon. Hostile territory. Not only has the future dissolved. But all the gardens they’ve cultivated, all the temples they’ve tended, all the traditions they’ve protected: they’ve lost everything. Devastated and dismantled. And they wake up in Babylon.
So what do you say – if you’re Jeremiah? How do you encourage a community in exile? Jeremiah searches for meaningful words, honest words, authenticity. But it’s not so simple. Not in Babylon. And there are other ‘prophets’ among the exiles gleefully predicting Babylon’s demise. These other ‘prophets’ don’t want the exiles to worry too much, to spend time changing their ways or adjusting to local customs. “Don’t worry, be happy!” they announce. “Easier times are coming. Babylon’s falling soon – you’ll all be going home.” Things will be just like they used to be.
But Jeremiah’s not buying what these other ‘prophets’ are selling. God insists, he writes, that the brokenhearted exiles prepare for a long stay, an extended journey in the foreign land. Build new houses in Babylon, he says. Plant new gardens. And most importantly, radically, seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your own.
Imagine that. Imagine Jeremiah proposing that Jews in exile seek the welfare of Babylonian neighbors and villages. Imagine him daring brokenhearted Jews, cut off from homeland and heartland, daring them to pray to God on behalf of the very culture that ripped their hearts from the land they love. This may be one of the most provocative prophetic texts we have in the bible: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” says God through the nervy prophet, “and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare – in the welfare of Babylon – you will find your own.”
So words matter. At least, Jeremiah stakes his prophetic vocation on that belief. That words matter. There’s a contest going on between two very different schools of prophetic thought. And Jeremiah weighs in with new words. He makes his case with provocative, unexpected words. Settle in, he insists, settle in and do all the things that make for life and longevity and healing and wholeness. Build homes. Plant orchards. Fall in love and raise families. And pray for your neighbors; look out and pray for all your neighbors. In Babylon.
Fast forward with me – from that time and place to our own – twenty-six centuries later. Because I’m reminded of our collective experience, our national experience, in the weeks just after September 11, 2001. Against our will, that terrible day, we were sent reeling into some kind of awful exile. Those first few days and weeks were like one long, extended nightmare. A living nightmare where the center no longer held and relationships of all kinds stretched and ripped and frayed. It was an exile, of sorts, a sudden deportation, a cardiac arrest, a dismantling of the future in an instant.
And don’t you remember how loud were the so-called ‘prophets’ who called for vengeance, for swift retribution and punishment? Don’t delay, they urged. Don’t think too much, they cautioned. Act fast. Be strong. Prove decisive. We’d been humiliated – and we’d have to show the enemy who was boss, who was to be feared. And you know the story: how we rushed, as a nation, into two terrible and unwinnable wars; how we missed out on all kinds of opportunities for reflection and self-correction and bridge-building.
I know there were voices like Jeremiah’s speaking up in those first days after 9-11. Voices advocating restraint. Voices inviting deliberation, reflection, prayer. Voices calling for new relationships and new initiatives and a sense of shared destiny among peoples of all faiths. “Pray for peace,” they urged us. “Seek the welfare of an international community. Resist the impulse to return terror for terror. For our welfare is their welfare – and we are bound inextricably in a network of mutuality.” There were voices like Jeremiah’s.
And what if we’d taken them to heart? What if we’d spent those billions and billions of dollars and brain cells on making common cause with the Muslim world? On developing educational partnerships, business partnerships, cooperative partnerships? What if we’d spent prayer time and academic time and town hall time investigating the roots of anti-American antagonism, the roots of all this terror? Maybe it was time to treat the rest of the world as something other than an American backyard, something other than George Bush’s oil field? But we didn’t do much listening back then, in 2001, not as a people, not as a nation. Jeremiah went pretty much ignored among us. And I guess I wonder if we’re paying a price for that. A huge price today.
So I’m interested in the political, national, prophetic edge of this text. Jeremiah is a compelling and provocative partner who demands honesty and accountability. And we need these things in our political life.
But I’m also intrigued, very intrigued, by the personal dimension here, the personal and spiritual dimension. Because we face the same temptations in our personal lives: we’re tempted to go for the ‘quick’ prophet, tempted to fall hard for the one who promises us a fast fix and a speedy recovery. Pain sucks. And there’s nothing truer than that. Pain sucks. So we’re tempted to take the quickest route available, the fastest track, the simplest road home.
But here’s what I hear Jeremiah saying. I hear him saying that there are things for us to learn in exile. I hear him saying that there’s a kindness that comes with sorrow. I hear him saying that there are even people out here in exile that we could get to know, to appreciate as companions and friends. I’m not saying we choose suffering because it’s good for us. And I’m not saying we choose misery because it makes us strong. But I am saying that there’s often a holy light shining in the dark night of the soul. It can take a long, long time – and gallons of tears – to find even a glimpse of it. But when we find it, when we allow it into our lives, we are never the same. Only kindness makes sense.
So if you’re slogging through that dark night even now, if you’re experiencing some kind of strange, awful exile in your life, maybe you’ll entertain even the possibility. Maybe you’ll allow for the chance that God is waiting for you there. In your exile. There’s some gift for you out there, in that dark night, in that despair. You’re not meant to be there forever. O no. But God can find you there, enlighten you there, illuminate your soul out there. And something holy is conceived in the darkness, something sacred and good and life-bearing.
I’m thinking back to the soulful words of Naomi Nye’s poem:
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
Catches the thread of all sorrows
And you see the size of the cloth.”
Again, I don’t want you walking out of here this morning saying, “The preacher wants me to suffer. The preacher thinks all these bad things that happen to me are good for me.” I’m not saying that. I’m really no masochist. And neither is God. But isn’t it true, just the same, that we all do suffer? I look around this hall, around this holy circle of friendship, and I know every one of you has suffered keenly, painfully. You’ve lost a job you’ve loved – and struggled to make ends meet for your family. You’ve buried a spouse – and stumbled through months of grief. You’ve plunged headlong into a terrifying depression and wondered whether life itself was worth it. Every one of us has suffered. And no matter how often we show up at church, we’ll suffer again.
And I hear God inviting, insisting, beckoning in the very holy heart of that suffering. Not from some crystal palace on a planet far, far away. Not from the gleaming light shining on a renaissance altar. Not from the ecstasy of some mountain top. But from the very holy heart of your suffering. I hear God inviting you to somehow embrace that suffering, embrace that exile – if only for a while – and discover there some gift for life.
Maybe it’s compassion. Maybe Naomi Nye’s right – and the gift we discover in exile, in our own suffering, is compassion. Because when you wake up with sorrow, when you cradle your own sorrow tenderly, when you love your own broken heart, when you speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows…then, then and there, you see the size of the cloth.
The size of the cloth. Martin Luther King’s single garment of destiny. Jesus’ one body with many members. Gaia – the one living earth to whom we all belong. The size of the cloth. We all suffer. We all end up in exile eventually. And then, in that truth, all of a sudden, only kindness makes sense. Only kindness ties our shoes and sends us out to mail letters or purchase bread. Only kindness raises its head from the crowd of the world to say, It is I you have been looking for. Embrace your exile, live your one true life, build a home, plant a garden, pray for the lovely and the strange, welcome the stranger. We all suffer – and only kindness makes sense.
So entertain this possibility. In your life. In your darkness. In your exile. The possibility that something holy is conceived in the darkness, in your darkness, something sacred and good and life-bearing. Open your eyes, your heart, your life. Dare to embrace that strange and holy exile. Because God is waiting there. The one you’ve been looking for is looking for you.
Shalom, my friends, shalom!