The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Did this text have to end with that sentence: “I will give the priests their fill of fatness?” Having just come through the Christmas season and nine months of pandemic, I can tell you that this pastor has had his “fill of fatness” in the form of shortbread, spritz cookies, bourbon balls, and cinnamon bread. The pandemic has not been kind to me or my bathroom scale. But this text isn’t about any weight loss resolutions you or I may have made in this new year. It’s about something else: abundance, joy, peace, prosperity…in short, it is about physical and societal salvation.
It’s important to know that the prophet Jeremiah is writing in the context of the Babylonian Exile from 597-538 BC, when the Babylonian Empire extended itself to include Judah, destroying the First Temple, and killing or carting off some of Jerusalem’s best and brightest and keeping them in captivity for a generation. You probably know the lament from Psalm 137 that describe the exile: “By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Jeremiah, though, initially stayed in Jerusalem, though he was later exiled in Egypt.
I would imagine that you and I both have a better feeling for what exile is like than we did last year at this time. For almost 10 months, we’ve been in a form of physical exile from one another as a worshiping community, albeit with small excursions of outdoor vespers, the sleepout vigil, and three or four drive-thru experiences in our parking lot. Thank God we are able to livestream! I don’t know about you, but I long for the day when we will be back in this sanctuary together, singing, praying, greeting, and sharing communion. My heart aches every time I think of you all coming forward to receive elements.
So, imagine yourself as one of those who have been taken away from security and home and loved ones and your place of worship…but 2,500 years ago, not in 2020. Take a moment and picture that in your mind’s eye. [pause] And now imagine that another ruler has defeated the Babylonians and that you get to return home. Not everyone survived the years of exile. Things will surely have changed, and there is much to rebuild. Think of the liberation after years of captivity! Imagine what that feels like.
“See, I am going to bring them back…a great throng will return here. With tears of joy, they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead hem by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble…They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the Lord’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds. Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more. Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy.”
I don’t know how it is for you, but I am more than ready to receive such good news. The other day, the first time I wrote “2021” I got a bit of a thrill. We will get to return from exile. When I saw the first Facebook photo of a friend, a chaplain in NYC, getting vaccinated, it gave me chills. And then when I saw pictures of Anne and Bill Thompson from Plymouth being inoculated, it became even more real: we aren’t going to be in exile forever!
In another sense, some of us have felt as though we have been in exile for four years. Have you had the experience of turning on the news or opening the paper or your iPad and steeling yourself, preparing for the outrage or big lie of the day? It has been an especially tough four years for the most vulnerable in our nation. Real wages for most workers have hardly budged since the 1960s. Unemployment has been brutal during the pandemic. And those who thought that America was approaching a “post-racial” future have been shocked by a further spate of police killings of Black men and women. Before the pandemic, 2.3 millions lost their health insurance, and since Covid arrived on the scene a further15 million Americans have lost health insurance coverage. In the U.S., 350,000 people have died as a result of the virus this year, and 20 million Americans have been infected.
As a nation, we need salvation…physical rescue and recovery…to return from exile. We need deliverance from the forces of ignorance, avarice, bigotry, self-centeredness, and lies. We need to be saved from a virus that has done the unthinkable to God’s world.
Here’s the good news: it’s within our ability as people, as a nation, as a world to make it happen. We need a change in political culture that moves from cronyism, corruption, and deceit toward character, honesty, and servant leadership. We need to revisit our assumptions about what constitutes basic American morals and values. We need to re-examine the “givens” in American society: institutional racism, a tax system built for the rich, corporate taxation that lets industry giants like Amazon pay no tax at all, health insurance that is based on where you work rather than the fact that you are a human with basic physical needs, that human-caused climate change is someone else’s problem. Morality has far less to do with what happens in the bedroom and more to do with what occurs in the boardroom and in the halls of government.
As I said, the good news is that we can help change happen. We can continue to make our voices heard, not simply as good Democrats, Republicans, or independents, but as people of faith. Our faith tradition has a lot to say about the way we treat the widow, the orphan, the alien, the indebted living among us. It says nothing positive about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Part of our challenge in this new year is to come to grips with the places we can be most effective agents of change. When we act on God’s behalf, salvation can happen, not simply on an individual level, but on a societal level. When you read Jeremiah, you understand what that kind of salvation means, and it’s the kind of salvation this nation needs.
Today, we are seeing glimmers of hope. We have an incoming government that is more interested in building international bridges than constructing physical walls…with a cabinet that looks more like America and less like me…with a commitment to work on climate change…to accelerate the delivery and distribution of Covid vaccines. And it isn’t just the members of one party who give me hope…it is people who stand on character and integrity on both sides of the aisle.
I think most Americans want what you and I want. Not all of us agree on how to get there. We must relearn to have civil discourse not from a rigid, doctrinaire stance that considers compromise a betrayal, but from a place of character and integrity and the common good. We must stop thinking so much about “me” and start to concentrate on “we.” (Have you ever noticed that the Lord’s Prayer is offered in the first-person plural, not singular?)
It is time to come in from the cold. It is time to return from exile and captivity. It is time to work for and to embrace abundance, joy, peace, prosperity…in short, it is about physical and societal salvation.
One day this year, I will see you return from exile and walk through the doors at the back of this sanctuary, and I will dance with joy. I will offer you the bread and the cup and look into your eyes when I do. Our “mourning will turn into laughter and our sadness into joy.”
Stay hopeful and keep the faith, dear friends. This will be a decisive year, and we all have a part to play in rebuilding.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Dr. David L. Petersen
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down.” So begins Psalm 137, a psalm that refers to a momentous time in the history of the Israelites. Between 600 and 580 before the Christian era, many of the leaders and much of the population of Judah were forcibly removed from their land and taken to several cities in the Babylonian empire. It was a wrenching event, since the centerpiece of their religion, the temple in Jerusalem, had been destroyed, and many of their cities had been burned to the ground. Their religion had focused on, among other things, the offering of sacrifices, which according to their beliefs could only be offered at the temple. Such religious practices were no longer possible. The people had lost their homes, their land, and their central religious shrine.
Fortunately, most, if not all, of us, will never experience that sort of exile. We know about other exiles, for example, the exile of the Cherokee people in the first half of the nineteenth century from their homeland in Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. But that is not something we’ve lived through. There are, however, other kinds of exiles, if we mean by exile "a prolonged and usually forced living away from our normal lives due to dynamics over which we have no control." We can be sent into exile by economic forces, by ill health, by social forces, and by psychological forces.
We can be sent into exile due to economic forces. This happened to my father’s family during the depression. My grandfather was employed by a woodworking company, which had lost much of its business. As a result, he moved his family to Arkansas, where they were able to live off the land and at much less expense than would have been the case had they stayed in Illinois. They were really in exile, away from all their family, away from their church, and away from the place that they knew as home. This wasn’t self-exile; it was a forced migration due to pressures against which they could not stand. We know people in that kind of exile.
We can be sent into exile due to the forces of ill health. A person can be forced to leave one’s healthy self and made to live with a compromised body. Last month, Sara and I visited a friend who is in the final stages of her struggle with brain cancer. We knew her as a terribly bright, energetic, and funny person. I worked with her on a number of editorial projects and within the context of our professional society. That was then; this is now. Now, she lives in exile from that former self, having suffered brain damage from the cancer and paralysis from a stroke. She is in exile, isolated from the person she formerly was. We know people in that kind of exile.
Social forces can drive people into exile. Children can be subjected to bullying and ostracism on social media and in person, so much so that they become suicidal. Jamel Myles, a nine year old who lived in Denver, committed suicide last month due to over a year of bullying at his grade school. He confronted social forces against which he could not stand; he lived in a social exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
Psychological forces can send us into exile. When a parent, a spouse or a child dies, the forces of grief batter us like a flood. We are moved away from the comfort of home to a land that is desolate, missing the person whom we had loved so much. Grief can move someone into a psychological exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
All of us are subject to these powerful forces that can drive us into various times of exile. How can we respond? The Old Testament offers at least three resources for how to live in exile and they come from three different biblical books.
First, the book of Lamentations. This brief book expresses the feelings of shock and grief that ancient Israelites experienced when their country was defeated, their capital and temple was destroyed, and much of the population was taken into exile. The poet uses the technique of personification, allowing us to hear how the city of Jerusalem, personified as a woman, responds to these events:
“She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks” Lam 1:1
She says, “For these things I weep, my eyes flow with tears…my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”(1:16). “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me.” (1:12).
There is a clear message for us: Mourning and crying are a normal, even essential, response to exile. They help us cope with the deep emotions created by the experience of exile.
The message: Mourn and weep!
A second Old Testament response to exile occurs in Psalm 137. This psalm is a song about two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the defeated city; Babylon is the city to which the Israelites had been exiled. We hear their voices from where they now live in exile:
“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and 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?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither.” (Vv. 1-5)
Not only had the Israelites been taken into exile, they had been ordered by their captors to entertain them with songs that they had sung at home, before they were taken into exile. To this, the Israelites said "No way. We are putting our musical instruments up in the willows and we are not going to forget Jerusalem."
There is a clear message for us: One can resist the forces that have put us in exile. We may not get out of exile. But that doesn’t mean we give in. And we must remember what is like to be “at home.”
The message: Resist and remember!
The third Old Testament response comes from the book of Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah himself was not taken into exile by the Babylonians. Rather, he was forcibly moved to Egypt by some of his fellow Israelites. Before being taken to Egypt, he wrote a letter to those in the Babylonian exile, telling them how to survive.
“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. 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.” (Jer 29:5-7)
Jeremiah knew that some of those who had been taken into exile expected to return soon. And he knew that others were despondent, living away from their home. We don’t often think of prophets as offering “pastoral” advice, but that’s exactly what Jeremiah did. He told those in exile: try to live productive lives, build houses, have families, and pray for the city where you live since your welfare depends on its welfare. Those may have been surprising, even shocking words for those who received his letter, but they were wise words.
There is a clear message for us: when we are in exile, we should build and pray, especially for the welfare of where we have been put so that we can live and flourish.
The message: Build and pray!
Most of us live in some sort of exile at one or another point in our lives. There is no one way to respond when we are in exile. But our religious tradition offers us at least three cogent and compelling ways to respond:
Mourn and weep!
Resist and remember!
Build and pray!
Dr. David L. Petersen is a Plymouth member, Old Testament scholar, and an editor of the Common English Bible,