I don’t want to make anyone jealous, but the moment I read the text from Jeremiah, a fully developed sermon flashed onto the screen of my mind. I didn’t even have to go to the hard drive and find the file. It was already open.
The sermon would go like this. Hard times. The Babylonians moved into Judah, cutting down the opposition like the dry grass under the lawn mowers on the seminary grounds this fall. The Babylonians seized Jerusalem and marched many of its leaders across 500 desert miles into exile in Babylonia. Separated from their land. Nobody speaks their language or eats their food. Refugees. The Babylonians probably settled them in a region of the country, near the River Chebar, that had been devastated by war between Babylonia and Assyria. Their job was to redevelop that wasted land. Their primary symbol, the Temple, was in ruins. All around them were Babylonian idols. Strangers in a strange land.
Some false prophets spoke the easy, optimistic word to the community. “Don’t unpack your Samsonite. This exile will end soon.”
Jeremiah knows better. Back in Jerusalem, he writes a letter to the exiles. “You have a future, and it is under God’s providential aegis, but it will be in Babylon.” “Build houses … plant gardens … take wives, and have sons and daughters … multiply there … But seek the welfare of the city (Babylon) where I have you, and pray for the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Build. Plant. Marry. Multiply. Seek the welfare of the city. Pray for Babylon. These are the activities of establishing a community for the long haul. I’ll admit the last one caught me off guard: pray for the welfare of your captors. And, to the eternal dismay of liberation theologians, Jeremiah counsels the community not to engage in revolt against Babylon. The commands to build, plant, and marry echo passages in Deuteronomy and Isaiah in which building, planting, and marrying are grounds for exemption from Holy War. The people are not to mount an armed insurrection against Babylon. You and I may wish that Jeremiah had called the community to guerilla subversion. But you have to acknowledge the practicality of Jeremiah’s strategy: “in the welfare of the city, you will find your welfare.”
The exile is home. The exile is the place where these daughters and sons of Abraham and Sarah will become a nation through whom all the other families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). The exile is where they will be a light to the nations, the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6).
I saw an analogy clearly. There are times when many of us feel like we are in exile from ourselves, or at least in exile from the persons we expected to be, or would like to be.
Maybe you’re a parent. You have a picture in your mind of what a parent is supposed to be. Wise. Patient. Authoritative. Respected. And you get into an encounter with one of your children, and you feel anything but wise, patient, authoritative, and respected. You feel like you’re in exile from the person you want to be.
In other circumstances, things happen over which you have no control. And you wake up one morning, and feel like you’re exiled from the way you thought your life would be. Without warning and without opportunity for dialogue, a trusted supervisor hands you a pink slip with a shrug of the shoulders. A marriage relationship goes up in flames. The doctor comes out of the operating room and says, “We did all we could.”
On such occasions, sometimes you need to drop out of life for awhile, at least drop out of the life that you knew. But eventually Jeremiah slips a letter inside your mailbox that says, “Build. Plant. Marry. Pray.” These are not just disembodied commands. They are gifts from God. These are things God gives us that help us discover a sense of purpose and community within exile.
Behind these words is an implicit promise. God is with you in the exile. God already provides the resources that we need to make a home in the exile. We may have to gather the rocks and the wood. We may have to find a field take up a plow. But Jeremiah assures us that within exile, God is with us to help us make a home.
In this connection, I am struck by the presence of the word “multiply.” Even in English you can hear the echo from Genesis 1. In Genesis, the specific reference is to having children. But in the surrounding context in Genesis 1, the command calls the mind and the larger purposes of God for humankind. Even in exile, we can be whom God made us to be. We may not multiply in the way that we had anticipated, but exile does not take away our generativity.
That sermon would run the risk of being a little more directive, and a little less client-centered than our pastoral counselors might like. But I can imagine a number of people who would be helped by the reminder that God gives us the resources to re-create our worlds, even within exile.
Yet as the ethicists who teach at my seminary continually remind me, “Brother Allen, you’re leaving the sermon at the level of the individual. Christian faith is inherently communal.” What about the church?
It doesn’t take any mental effort to realize that the church today is in exile in the larger culture. We live in a land of idols. All you have to do to encounter values and behaviors that are alien to biblical life and religion is to wake up in the morning. When your alarm goes off, you don’t hear the language of love, grace, and self-sacrifice for the good of the neighbor. Your hear works righteousness, self-fulfillment through consumption, how to promote your own self-interests. Individualism. Narcissism. Feel good religion.
The church is in exile in this latter day Babylonia. To use one of the newer buzzwords: God calls the church to be a counter culture. Figuratively speaking, we build, plant, marry, and pray. We develop a Christian community whose home is the exile. We live here. But within the Babylonianism of North America, we are to help the other peoples of this culture recognize how they can be blessed. We are to live as a light to the Gentiles.
Funny things happen when you read the text of the Bible. You see things you might otherwise miss. “Seek the welfare of the city. Pray for it.” Do you know what Hebrew word is translated “welfare?” That’s right. Shalom. I know Gentiles have a tendency to over-read when we encounter this word shalom. But I can’t help thinking that this prayer even has a counter cultural quality to it. In Hebrew, at its fullest, shalom refers to relationships in community conforming to God’s purposes and desires. To pray for the shalom of Babylon is to pray for Babylon to become a community in which God’s aims of love and justice are expressed in all relationships. To pray for the welfare of the city is to pray for its transformation.
How can you and I pray for the shalom of this Babylonian world in which we live?
Well, those would have would have been two pretty good sermons. But, you know sometimes a sermon takes on a life of its own. You find yourself going places you didn’t expect for reasons that are not altogether clear. I finally admitted something that I have felt for a long time. Increasingly, in these middle years, I feel exiled from the very church I am called to serve. Given Luther’s keen sensitivity to sin, he would probably not be surprised to learn that the Babylonian captivity of the church has not ended with the reform of medieval Roman Catholicism. You can’t always distinguish the language of the church from the language of IBM, or even the Pentagon.
The church is called to be a community through whom other families of the earth can be blessed, a light to the nations, a laboratory of what God offers and what God asks, a living model of the ways in which God makes it possible for all peoples, and nature, to live together. But — to be blunt — relationships among different peoples in the church are often pretty much a mirror of the way things are in the world at large. We talk a lot about being diverse and inclusive, but most of the congregations that I know are much like the lifestyle enclaves in the wider world. We group together by race, ethnicity, education, social class. Some of our denominations do not even reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the culture. It doesn’t take all the fingers on one hand for me to count all the white congregations I know that might be ready to call an African-American pastor. Even theological viewpoint. Every congregation has some people, sometimes noisy, who are right or left of the congregation’s center, but, by and large, we are grouped together in theological enclaves, too.
When I was ordained, 1974, the church of which I am a part, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), had about 970,000 participating members in North America. Today, we have about 570,000. If present trends continue, by the time I retire, we will have about 300,000. Now, the church should not measure itself by simple statistical indicators. That would be the height of Babylonianism. And I wouldn’t mind being a part of a declining church if the decline were connected to a conscientious decision to become a particular kind of community of witness. Instead, I know a lot of clergy and lay leaders who are spending most of their energy propping up the institution. It easy to ask yourself, “Why am I giving the best years of my vocational life to a church that is checking itself into institutional hospice?”
As a matter of fact, in my lifetime, I have difficulty thinking of a single major issue on which the European-American church has been the first group, or even among the first groups in our culture, to identify an issue as a major one, and to offer a visionary interpretation. We almost always react to issues that other people and communities bring up. Civil right. The war on poverty. The women’s movement. Concern for ecology. Honoring pluralism and diversity.
In a way, this phenomenon just testifies to what we preachers love to say. God is always ahead of us. At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, God goes before the community with the pillar of fire and smoke God is at work in Babylonia before the exiles ever leave Jerusalem. The messenger from heaven told the women at the tomb, “He is not here … He is going ahead of you, to Galilee.” A part of the calling of the church is to catch up with God, and to help interpret what God is doing in the world. But, it’s a little embarrassing when you represent the Sovereign of the Universe, whom the rabbis called The Omnipresent, to be arriving second or third on the scene.
If God is ahead of us, why do we spend so much time tinkering with the machinery of the church as it is? To be honest, even a lot of what we teach here presumes the church in its present form. We don’t do a lot with imagining how things might be.
But this is the church that has called me. And it’s the church that has called most of you, too. What to do? Build. Plant. Multiply. Pray. Establish a home within exile. Become a part of a subculture within a subculture. Pray for the welfare of the church. Be open to new possibilities. God is with us.
Once in a while, I see this very thing happen. Bishop Tom Benjamin, pastor of Light of the World Christian Church, and Dr. William Enright, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, both in Indianapolis, sat down over coffee one day, and out came the Celebration of Hope. The celebration of hope is a multi-denominational effort to bring African-Americans and European-Americans into face to face conversation over issues of race in Indianapolis. Building in the exile.
When a group of faculty and trustees were in a remote area of India a few years ago, we met a husband and wife, both physicians. When they settled in that region, they offered the only medical care for miles. Too many sick people. Not enough medical care. So they asked each village to pick out a person, any person, to come for training as a village health care worker. And today, their area of India has medical care in every village. The persons to be trained as health workers were already in the villages. They only needed to be identified and trained. Planting in a situation of exile.
What are the resources that are already in your world for making a witness in the exile? How can you work with God to build, plant, multiply, pray?
What is this I see on the Table of our Savior, in our very midst? Bread and cup. What more do we need than the knowledge that Christ is already going ahead of us?

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