The Israelites with money and power, the elites of Israel were sent into exile because of the way they treated their poor and outcast, according to the prophets as well as books such as the psalms and lamentations. In the first two of today’s passages then, the exiled are expressing deep sorrow and lament. The passage from Lamentations says, “Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress….Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.” In lamentations the pain of exile is expressed in the third person. In the psalm, it is more personal – expressed in the first person, the psalmist laments, cries out, or expresses the pain of the exile.
According to the psalmist, those who have captured and exiled the elite Israelites, the Babylonians, are now asking the exiled Israelites to share with the Babylonians their music, to entertain them with the songs that define who they are, their values, their beliefs, their culture, their heritage. The psalmist is crying out that the very request is deeply painful for it shows how little understood is the depth of their despair at being taken from their home. The pain is intense. It is real. It is deep and profound to the core. The Babylonians may have been mocking them in this very request. The Israelites have been uprooted, all that mattered to them demolished. This destruction included the temple and because at that time it was believed that God resided in the temple, the destruction of the temple meant for the people that God had left, abandoned them, at least during this time while they are in exile.
While the prophets declare that this exile is nothing more than justice for the way they have treated the poor and outcast in their midst, the Israelites in this psalm are not expressing guilt. They are not repenting of their behavior. They are also not living in the promise that God will return and then return them to their home. In this psalm, and in the passage from lamentations, they are expressing the pure pain of being in exile, the pure hope for revenge, the pure anguish of lives changed, lost, uprooted. They are expressing anger, stopping the circle of violence by not acting it out but sharing it with God. They trust they can express all of their pain, anger and wish for revenge to God knowing God will still love them and that God will be the one to serve justice. Through their expression, through this writing in the psalms and in lamentations, they have likewise given us permission to express our pain, our sense of loss, our anger, grief, and despair at times when we, too, have experienced this kind of pain. So I want to start today be asking you, have any of you ever experienced this kind of pain? This sense of being in exile?
For African Americans and other people captured and enslaved, for refugees escaping for their lives, for people who feel they have no other choice but to leave, these passages of lament voice a deep and very real experience. But most of us have not experienced exile in these ways. Still, I would guess that some if not many of you have felt that you were uprooted in a way or to a place you had no desire to go – sent away or made to move from a place you loved?
A friend of mine was sharing with a group of us about a time when her husband took a job overseas in a country in Asia. This friend did not want to go, made it clear that she did not want to go, but there was no choice for her and for three years she lived, as she said, as one in exile. One of the other members of our group confronted this perception saying to her that she could have chosen not to go with him, and that this is very different from the exiled Jews who had no choice but to go and who had lost everything in the going. But for my friend, the choice felt extreme. She could have chosen to stay behind and forfeit all the things in her life that were meaningful to her – her husband, her family, her financial support, or she could leave her home and go with her husband into what felt alien and distant and against her wishes. She felt exiled. And for her these passages of lament spoke to her of her experience. While she could not attribute the exile to God’s justice or to a sense of prophetic fulfillment, she could feel the abandonment, the anger, the anguish of being a stranger in a foreign place in a way that felt against her will.
For those of us to whom even this kind of exile is foreign, I imagine that still, we have, at one time or another, felt some kind of psychological exile: a time when we were in a group where we felt we did not belong, in a culture that was not our own and in which we felt completely “different” or other. Maybe this takes you back to high school or even grade school and a time when you were left out or made fun of. If you have ever been the center of public critique, that, too, may feel like a place of exile, where those who would condemn you do not really know you but would judge you anyway.
The theme of exile, being outcast and seeking restoration, reconnection, seeking to come home – this is one of the great meta-narratives or broad themes that speak to us throughout the Bible. There are three basic metanarratives in scripture: Being a slave freed from slavery, being an exile returned home and being caught by sin and forgiven for it. We don’t focus as much on this particular metanarrative but it is a very important theme throughout scripture. The story reflects a universal experience of being taken from home, of searching for home, of feeling that it is very hard, if not impossible to find home, to get home. For many poets and theologians, exile and these passages have spoken to them of the experience of feeling that being here on earth is a kind of exile, a time of being away from a true and deep sense of home.
While it may seem odd that we would focus on this theme on World Communion and Peacemaking Sunday, it is in fact not only appropriate but important that we look at this theme on such a day as today. On World Communion Sunday we celebrate the universality of our human experience, which is one of brokenness seeking wholeness. Today we focus on the universality of exile, of lament, of crying out to God. This universal experience of depression, of being lost, of searching for home, is part of what makes us human. We are united in the common experience of distance from home and even from God, and we are called in our unity to be part, through our peacemaking efforts, through our faith, of bringing every person home from exile, of bringing every person into community, of restoring right relationships both between all people, and between ourselves and God.
This is not just a hypothetical or distant injunction. We are called, we are commanded, to love neighbor and even enemy as self – to not be part of the exiling or exclusion of others, but to be part of the restoration, the bringing home of the exiled, the creating of community and “home” for all who are lost. Part of the way in which we do this first and foremost is by eating with one another. We, in this congregation, are a people who do not worry about where our next meal is coming from. We know that we will eat, often, perhaps too often and enough, often more than enough. So those words that Jesus spoke, “I am the bread of life… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” These words promising bread that will enable Jesus’ hearers to eat, to not go hungry, to live – these words don’t have the same impact on we who are comfortable and who have enough to eat as they did for those who were not always assured of where their next meal was coming from.
For people who were hungry, these words were promising another day of living; but more, they were promising a life freed from the anxiety of worrying about their next meal, or the next or the next. It promises a life that brings us home, a life of abundance, without hunger, without craving, without emptiness, without exile, and without fear. We understand these words to be about something much bigger than fulfilling hunger. We understand that the life Jesus was promising was not the daily life that we live. Still, in a place, within an experience, where life is so fragile, so precarious, so short, and so full of the fear, loneliness and reality of hunger, a promise of everlasting bread spoke to Jesus’ hearers so much more than it possibly could for any who have not suffered shortage of food.
Sarah Miles, in her book Take this Bread, said, “it’s the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away. For those who know their need, God is immediate – not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.” That is what is offered in communion, in this last supper in the sacrament of this meal. We are offered food, yes, but more we are offered life, we are offered Jesus himself – his body, his blood, his presence here in this meal. Sarah Miles continued, “What Jesus offered was a radical…love that accompanied people in the most ordinary actions – eating, drinking, walking, and stayed with them, through fear, even past death.” She connects all of this with Jesus call and command to Peter…She said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about another (Biblical) story: Jesus instructing his beloved, fallible disciple Peter exactly how to love him: ‘Feed my sheep.’ Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter fussed, “Of course I love you.’ “Feed my sheep.” Peter fussed some more. “Do you love me?” asked Jesus again. “Then feed my sheep.” It seemed pretty clear. If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.”
Feeding, eating together, these are ways in which we find home, in which we make home. Those who are fed by God, not by daily food, necessarily, but by God, those people, no matter how poor they are themselves, those people find within them the strength and gift of feeding others. Greg Mortensen begins his book, The Three Cups of Tea by recounting his story of finding himself in an impoverished Pakistan village after a failed attempt to climb K2. He was exhausted, he was sick, and yet these poor strangers fed him, cared for him. The story continues, “(Mortensen) took a bite of warm chapatti dunked in lassi, wolfed all that he’d been served, and washed it down with sugary tea. Sakina laughed appreciatively and brought him more. If Mortensen had known how scarce and precious sugar was to the Balti, how rarely they used it themselves, he would have refused the second cup of tea.” The story goes on to explain how he had also been given by them their best blankets, their best food, their best everything, things they had so little of, things they did not use for themselves. They found in the midst of their physical poverty, but their spiritual wealth, that they had this to share. And they began it all with “communion” – with sharing the food of life with this stranger. Those who find their fulfillment from God always find that they have something to share, no matter what they lack. We are called to serve in the same way. But first to see those we are most called to serve. And that must start with an understanding of what it is to be exiled, to feel cast away from home.
On this world Communion and peacemaking Sunday, we are called first to remember the experience of being cast out, and to remember Jesus’ experience of exile and rejection, to remember that he, too, stood with the outcast and rejected even as he experienced being one of them. Second, we are called to unite with the exiled, to eat together, to create home and community with all who would join together on this day, to eat together, to make food together. The hymn that we will be singing in a moment calls us to remember and to experience again the universal sense of lament. I invite you to allow yourself to sit with the words, to be in the words, and to hear God’s voice calling us to solidarity with those who are exiled, and to peacemaking as we remember our call to be with, beside and empowering those who are rejected. Let us be in a spirit of prayer…