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 email@example.com 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.