Remembering Who We Are
Growing up, I often found myself on the margins of the social groups at school - because I was a girl, or because I wore glasses, or because I answered too many questions in school, or because I wore the wrong clothes that weren’t in fashion. I got made fun of because I played an instrument in church. You may know this kind of exile from your childhood, whatever groups you “weren’t” allowed in.
We can carry great shame about how we look or who we are because of the intense messages we get from society that “the best” people are a certain way. So we’re supposed to have bodies shaped just this way, or skin just this color, or abilities that can achieve just this goal. We’re supposed to learn a certain way, be able to read and write, go to a certain religious community, speak the right language, never stand out from what the group can do. Many of us carry these ways we are outsiders throughout our lives.
Going further, we know that humankind seems to separate us over perceived differences in ways that grow up to be much more life altering than these social exiles – we listed these in the welcome words at the top of our service and they’re listed on the First Churches website – barriers humans erect over who has money or who doesn’t, what kind of education we have, how we express gender or sexual identity, what language we speak, the color of our skin. We are increasingly hearing groups in our communities trying to acknowledge the ways they were founded and prospered by exiling or even trying to extinguish native peoples, or by forcibly bringing Africans out of their own lands far away to these shores, to be slaves, upon whose loss, suffering and extracted labor so much of this country was founded. We are divided greatly in our country about how many people from other lands to let in to our country, and from which lands. Perhaps you heard yourself described in this list . . . maybe even today you are feeling like an outsider in your town or job, or that you are in a foreign land in your own life, or maybe you love someone who does.
But I am not going to talk to us today about ways we may collaborate to exile others because in today’s scriptures, God is sending us a message about when we ourselves are in exile. In the Jeremiah reading, God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah to beloved children in exile. Such is the setting of the first scripture we heard today. The Israelites have been defeated by the Babylonians and marched out of the Promised Land, far, far away, many loved ones lost and killed or left behind for what will be generations. Earlier chapters tell that they have not been keeping the laws of God, and God permits them to be conquered and carried off, faithless and forgetful of God as they have been. But now in Babylon, the Israelites mourn and languish, believing that all that defined them is left behind . . . that their God is left behind in the Temple at Jerusalem.
In Psalm 137 their heart break is captured – they say: “ By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? (Ps. 137:1-4)
But God comes to them through the prophet Jeremiah telling them, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce . . . multiply there and do not decrease.” (Jer 29:5,6) Don’t languish, flourish! For now, live your lives to the fullest. Follow my ways in this place for I am not far away in Jerusalem, I am right here with you in Exile. Share what is good and loving with these who feel so foreign. Bloom where you are planted!
Maybe God was calling them out of their sorrow, their despair, helping them to remember who they were. Don’t we all need that sometimes? Someone to remind us of our gifts and invite us out of our despair, to remember who we are. The poet Galway Kinnell writes about the flower bud:
The bud stands for all things, even for those things that don’t flower, for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing; though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow of the flower and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
And then God says an even more astounding thing: “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.” Jesus will codify this for us generations later when he commands us, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you . . .” (Matt 5:44) A few verses later in Jeremiah, God also says this: “ ‘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.’ ”(Jer 29:11) God asks us to trust, and believe.
When you find yourself in a place you never wanted to be, lamenting loss of place or identity or feeling like an outsider in your own community, come back to this story of the Israelites in exile and hear these words God says to us all: Bloom where you are planted. Give out your light and goodness and talent to the darkness!
We hear this message another way in the second scripture about the Ten Lepers. I’m including learnings about this bible story from this week’s Commentary from the SALT Project. (https://mailchi.mp/saltproject/newsletter-awesomeness-2643203?e=8c7bccc907.) It’s a big deal that the ten approached Jesus, and that can often be lost on us in our time. As people with leprosy, or what was believed to be a contagious ugly skin disease, lepers were kept outside the city, marginalized from society, kept apart. They could only speak to other people from a distance. They could only make it, frankly, if they stuck together and formed their own community. They would risk making their family or a friend ritually unclean, as a devout Jew, or sick, if they came near. I definitely have more personal insight into this kind of exile given the quarantines we’ve been living in during this COVID time, haven’t you?
So they are bold to approach Jesus, but from a distance they call to him, with respect, “Master” they call him, and ask for healing. Notice he immediately sends them to do as the law commands, to show themselves to the priests and on the way, they are all healed – all ten. We come to learn that one of them is a foreigner, a Samaritan, when this one returns after being healed.
That’s a big deal too because Samaritans were longtime outsiders, disliked and disrespected by the Jews in part because they had historical connections to them. They were descendants of the Jews left behind in Babylon during the exile, (we just heard about them!) and the Gentiles brought into the Holy Land when the Assyrians invaded it. Not much could bring Samaritans and Jews together except, in this case, the exile of Leprosy. So Jesus remarks that it is only the foreigner, the Samaritan, who returns to give praise and thanks for healing. This is the one with two kinds of exile against her: she’s a Leper and a Samaritan!
You may remember Jesus refers to Samaritans a number of times in the Gospels, most famously in the “Good Samaritan” parable where it is only the Samaritan, and not the law-following Jews, who stop for the wounded Jew on the side of the road and has mercy on him. I hear in these stories that Jesus is provoking the faithful people, the Jews, not to assume God’s mercy and love will be automatic no matter what they do. Jesus teaches clearly that it may be the outsider who is actually on the right track to God. “Were not all ten healed?” he asks. Now he doesn’t take that back – for they all did as he instructed – to go to the priest to show themselves and be declared clean, able to rejoin the community. And we never understand them to be disrespectful, or disobedient. But it is notable that the Samaritan, who also has been included in Jesus’ healing, apparently disrupts Jesus’ instructions to do more than just claim their healing be officially cleared, but first return and give thanks, praising God.
I hear in both stories that exile is a place in which God’s outrageous mercy and healing may find us most clearly. Exile may be where we can find our way back when we have forgotten who we are. Like the Israelites, we may come to forget that we were created in love by God, designed to be God’s hands and feet in the world, a beacon to others. But God speaks to us, through the voices of Jeremiah, and Jesus: if you find yourself in exile, find my love in there – it has never left you! Return to me and find yourself again.
When we keep our eyes on the gospel message of love that is greater than death, we are changed. Slowly over time, we hear and see how life can be different in God’s dream for us – and we can choose every moment to be a person of mercy, non-judgment, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, faith.
We may not be able to control where or when we find ourselves born into the world, or what exiles we find ourselves in, but we do have the promise of God’s faithful love wherever we are and we can control what we do there. It is easy to be a beautiful coneflower in a garden filled with other lilies, beebalm, daisies - to bloom when you are among many others in their strength and glory! But how miraculous it is to see a lone shoot come up amidst a broken asphalt lot – opening its bright blossom to the sky, warming the heart of the next person to come by, blooming amidst bleakness.
As you move through your day, breathe out love – sing and pray that others may hear you; act as God calls us to act, bloom where planted, shine the light of goodness in the dark so that from where you start to wherever you end up – the way is lit with love. God is with you so return to God and remember who you are.