On Exile and Turning–January 24, 2010

Nehemiah 8:1-12, Luke 4: 14-30
January 24, 2010
Mary Hammond

I have had only two life experiences that ever came close to resembling exile. The first was at the age of 22, when Steve and I were wide-eyed newlyweds. After our wedding in Indiana, we returned to the house church in Alabama that we have been attending while I was in graduate school. During the month we were gone, this little community had merged with another house church and had restructured under a new, much more authoritarian, model of leadership. Later, this became known as the “Shepherding Movement” of the 1970’s.

“God’s not sending people to seminary these days,” the newest church leader proclaimed. However, we both knew that God was sending Steve to seminary when I finished my degree. Over a few weeks of protracted prayer, discussion, and discernment, it became clear what we had to do.

The parting was not pretty. The final words of the church elders burned forever in our ears: “Your blood is on your own hands. Your salvation is in danger. We wash our hands of you.” Exiled, we said goodbye to a community who had once welcomed us warmly, even as Northerners and newcomers residing in the deep South. We also said goodbye to a way of practicing our faith that had been a rich part of our journey to that point as young adults.

My other primary experience of exile occurred in 2005 when the church decided by consensus to join the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, thus publicly supporting the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people in the church. This decision provided a new space to stand in solidarity with countless other people who have been exiled by their churches, families, and communities for their sexual orientation.

With the church’s building on the line and complex negotiations on many levels, the process became a sustained, intense blur for me. I remember the aftermath in my soul much better than the details which folks in the congregation still easily recall. I have never personally felt so dechurched as I did in 2006, once the American Baptist Churches of Ohio were no longer our regional home and my brain and heart tried to catch up with each other.

We have been deeply blessed in our association with the Rochester-Genesee Region, beyond our imaginations, but exile inevitably leaves questioning and scarring in its wake. How can exile not lead to open wounds, when the old has disappeared, and the new is yet to manifest itself? Yet, exile also leads to new opportunities and fresh spiritual growth, as the old is left behind, and the new takes shape before our eyes.

Exile rages like a torrential stream throughout the pages of scripture. It is a paradoxical theme of the spiritual journey. The Apostle Peter describes believers as “strangers and exiles” on earth (I Peter 2:11), a community with a home not made by human hands, living in a Realm not governed by human rulers. In the memoirs of Nehemiah, exile is fresh history for the Jewish people who had been displaced and scattered by foreign invaders. Some had at long last returned to Jerusalem, only to find the city in ruins.

Cupbearer for foreign king, Artaxerxes, Nehemiah learns of the returnees’ plight and the devastation of the city. He petitions the king to allow him to organize the rebuilding process. In spite of threats from enemy tribes, economic hardship, back-breaking labor, and discouragement, the community is successful in its efforts. Yet, the people are hungry for more than a rebuilt temple wall. Hungry for a rebuilt faith, they ask Ezra the priest to open the scriptures to them. Young and old gather in the town square. From dawn to midday, Ezra reads from the sacred scroll. The Levites, assistants in the temple, interpret the words he speaks.

The people are undone. All the embodied anguish from years of wandering and exile, returning to a city in ruins, making a way when there was no way, yearning for God’s Voice–all of this comes to bear on their hearts as if a great flood is unleashed. They weep. I bet these are no quite tears moistening the edges of the cheek. I bet these are great, gigantic wails. We all know that sound. Most of us have cried like that sometime in our lives. The words of Moses from the sacred text fall on their ears as balm, tonic, sting, and vision, all at the same time.

But Nehemiah, Ezra, and the other leaders do not leave the people in their weeping. No, they instruct the community to throw a party. Not only are they to throw a party, but they are instructed to remember to welcome the poor in their midst! The time for lament gives way to a time for celebration. New life is on the horizon. With God’s help, joy arises from the ashes of mourning.

Judy and Tom Riggle have a friend in Zimbabwe named Eddie, and they often send me his e-mail updates. Eddie writes passionately about the heart-wrenching news from his country and always signs off with this one verse from Nehemiah: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” A cry of hope in the midst of devastation and madness, oppression and violence, these words become a beacon of light for him in truly desperate times. Throughout everything, Eddie continues to claim for his own the ancient confession of an exiled people working to make ‘return’ a full reality in all its many-orbed facets. He is watching, waiting, and working for the turning of his native land to sanity, sustenance, and justice.

The bible is a paradoxical book. Nehemiah reminds us that exile leads to return and restoration; the Gospel reading reminds us that return can lead to exile as well. Jesus re-enters his hometown, only to leave it exiled from the very people who watched him grow up, nurtured him, and supported him. His prophetic proclamation is too much for their ears. Their praise turns to anger, and they mob him, dragging him out of the temple to throw him over a cliff.

Exile is not always the result of misdeeds; it can also be the result of speaking the truth. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal…but the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony” (from compiled quotations provided by Every Church a Peace Church). While exile can be the consequence of faithlessness, it can also be the price we pay for faithfulness.

Today we continue to celebrate the season of Epiphany. We see the bright light of God in Nehemiah’s memoirs as the returned exiles see new life dawn on what had been a bleak and barren horizon. We see the bright light of God as Jesus stands before the hometown crowd and risks his life proclaiming his mission. We see the bright light of God in this place, in these faces here, in the hymns sung by children in Haiti, in the prayers offered from the deepest places of exile on the earth.

Let us participate in this gigantic journey. If exile is our experience, may we grow to understand its meaning and begin to know the joy of return and celebration, even when it looks much different than we envisioned. When called to do so, may we bear the price of exile to speak the words of truth. Through it all, may we forge a deeper, more grounded faith and trust in God. There is always Light to be seen on the road ahead, no matter how treacherous the path, no matter how dim the light.

“The joy of the Lord is our strength.” Amen.