Toorak Uniting Church

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Exile, is it a place or a state of mind?

Jeremiah 29: 1 – 7     Psalm 66: 1 – 12
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10 October 2004

For the people of Israel that Jeremiah is writing to it certainly is a place. They have been taken from their homes and brought, as captives, to a strange land far away. Their cities have been destroyed, their community uprooted, they’ve lost everything they had.

Jeremiah had warned them about this. Warned them that this was what was going to happen to them as a result of their irresponsible, ungodly living. And here they are: strangers in a strange land with only the clothes on their backs left to them.

Last Tuesday evening we had a very special woman visiting our Church from India. Her name was Soorya Kumary and she is a Shri Lankan refugee living in India, working in one of the big refugee communities in the south of the country. She told us that she was 13 when she lost her home for the first time and how, over the years she had lost everything a couple of times to end up in exile in India.
It was a very impressive, moving and inspiring story.
The story of people fleeing by plane or over sea to safety and finding shelter and a place to live in another country. People that, although they have been treated very well by the Indian government, live with the pain of being uprooted and displaced every day.

While she was telling about her experiences in the camps my thoughts went to this week’s reading of Jeremiah.

Would it have been a bit like that for the people of Israel?
It was policy of the Babylonians to displace people and then help them to settle somewhere far away from home in another part of the empire. An attempt to dilute and disperse any nationalistic tendencies to build all the nations that had been conquered into one, united nation of Babylonia. They weren’t treated badly, but they weren’t allowed or able to go home.

Soorya’s people experience the same displacement as the people of Israel did, although for a different reason. It is not the Indian government that has displaced them, it is their fellow country men that have forced them to flee. But as the people of Israel in Babylon: They aren’t treated badly, but they can’t go home simply because it is not safe to do so.

Jeremiah, from the ruins that are left of Jerusalem, writes to his people in exile in Babylon: Build houses he says, plant vineyards, take wives and have sons and daughters, seek the welfare of the city where you have been send and pray to the lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your own.

This is an unexpected message from Jeremiah. He, who has been going on about a pure and godly life in the service of Jahweh, now, suddenly, seems to want them to settle and integrate in Babylonian society. Surely we would have expected him to tell his people to keep to the old ways and traditions, be proud of their heritage, and never forget about the land that God had given them and where they ultimately belong.

Listening to Soorya the other day I think I started to understand some of what Jeremiah may have meant with his writing. She told us that often in refugee camps life becomes exceedingly difficult because of so many people living in a very confined space. Children are exposed to sex at a very early age which leads to a rise in teenage pregnancies. That in turn leads to high infant mortality and high sickness and mortality rates in young mothers. Boredom leads to violence, the reliving of traumatic experiences and despair about the future to depression and so life in a refugee camp tends to spiral downwards for everybody all the time. A pattern evident in some of the detention centres within our own country.

With the help of Christian World Mission Soorya and her people have tried to turn this vicious downward spiral around by improving healthcare, organizing health and information programs for young mothers, organizing nurseries and nutrition programs for young children and women support groups for those women who find themselves supporting families in very difficult circumstances. They have organized a spirulina farm, growing a kind of algae very rich in vitamins and minerals to support the health of young mothers and so organizing jobs for people in the camp that would otherwise not be occupied.

And they are doing more, too much to repeat here, but, in that very desperate situation of exile they are doing what Jeremiah tells his people to do: They are building (temporary) houses and planting spirulina and changing their exile from a downward spiral into a positive expression of strength and power of survival.

Their fight to turn their fate into a future not only a blessing for themselves but blessing us with inspiration not only to help them but to let go of our own despair about the state the world is in and to start turning things around in our own lives and community.

If Soorya and her people can manage to turn some of their desperate circumstances around with hardly anything at their disposal in the way of resources, there is perhaps more positive turning around possible in the world today!

Some modern Christian scholars talk about the situation of the Church as it is at the moment as a situation of exile. The Church being pushed out of the center of western society to the margins has gone into exile they say, into a state of uprootedness and loss. The church in the western world has lost the safety of being at home in a friendly culture and now finds itself in a culture that is alien to it and in a lot of cases even hostile. Leaving the people of the Church feeling insecure, and bereft.

We have had to let go of a lot of the self evident truths of our Christian culture. A loss that is still going on. The church is not as full as it used to be, our Church community is aging, there are not enough children populating the Sunday morning program. Where are they? What are we going to do?

Probably in the time of Jeremiah people asked the same thing. What are we going to do? How are we going to hand down our faith and tradition to young people that grow up in a place that is so completely foreign to us? How are we ever going to survive as a community, as people of God?

Jeremiah’s answer is to build houses, plant vineyards, marry and have children and be a blessing to those around. Jeremiah tells them not to hang on to their own identity and tradition at all cost. Instead of telling them to never give in he tells them to settle in the place of their captivity. He turns it around: Consider this place a place where God has send you, make your life fruitful in that place and let it be a blessing to those who you find around you.

As a Church we might feel that we’ve lost and that we’re losing. We may grieve the good things that have gone, the great past that lies behind us. We may hanker for multiple classes full of happy enthusiastic Sunday school kids following our Sunday morning program, we may long for the days when throngs of people walked to Church on a Sunday morning and spent most of their day there. When everybody went to church and all of life was geared towards respecting the Sabbath. There may be the temptation to turn inwards and hang on, protect the way things have always been at all cost and shut ourselves off from the society around us, because we don’t feel at home there and things only seem to be getting worse.

What I learned from Jeremiah this week and of Soorya is that this should not be the attitude if we really are to be God’s people. God has put us in this spot at this time for us to live a godly life and to be a blessing to those in whose midst we live. We should feel gratefulness for all the good things God has given in the past, but it is not the place where we’re supposed to stay.

Build houses, plant vineyards, marry and have children. In other words: Live life to the full in gratefulness of what God gives, becoming a blessing and an inspiration for those around you, confident that God has given us to this time and this place to live out our calling and be his body in this world.

Turn our exile into an exodus, our uprootedeness into a journey of faith, our feelings of homelessness and estrangement in this world into an opportunity to go outside our comfort zone and increase the peace and grace of God’s presence in this world, turn our feelings of despair and loss around to an open and embracing approach to challenges and gifts God offers us in this particular situation.

Let us be grateful for the good things that have been given to us in the past, for the people that have served this Church with inspiration and dedication. But let us also look forward to the wonderful things that still await us: God in the ever changing scenes of life, perhaps trying at times and feeling as if we have to go through fire and through water to get to the other side, but God, there, going ahead of us and bringing us out into a place where goodness and blessing will grow, for us and for those that surround us.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

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