October 11, 2010

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Refugees, All of Us

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7

Luke 17: 11-19

Our world is filled with refugees. The floods in Pakistan this summer left over 20% of that nation completely under water, including 17 million acres of the most fertile farmland. Twenty million people or more have been forced from their homes. Many of those will never be able to return. The devastation is beyond our comprehension. In Rwanda and the Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq, it is war that has forced people to flee, leaving behind everything, trying to find a place of safety. In our own hemisphere, thousands of people in Haiti are still living in tents, if they have even that much shelter.

Yes, our world is filled with refugees. The physical toll and the emotional upheaval are awful. A million or more personal tragedies play themselves out every day, and for the most part we are protected from that. If we are forced from our homes, it is usually temporary – the power goes out or something like that. We don’t face the kind of hardships that so many others deal with every day of their lives. But I do think we experience our own kind of dislocation. Rather than physical, it is a kind of spiritual dislocation.

If you grew up in another time and place as I did, you were at home in a world where faith was central to life. On Sunday, people went to church; before meals and at bedtime they prayed; during the week they read the bible and did their best to act as it instructed. But we don’t live there anymore. We find ourselves in a very different kind of world. In a way, we have been exiled in place. Physically we have stayed put, but spiritually we have been moved away from God. Forces in our world beyond our control have pushed us to another way of life.

Those forces are, for the most part, not natural disasters or civil war. Instead they are things like a cultural fascination with material goods; the constant presence of technology that has the effect of distracting us from the present moment; economic disasters that require us to uproot our families in order to find work; illness that sends us into the land of medicine, and – take it from one who has been there -- that is indeed a foreign country.

It takes a lot of energy to live in exile, to live as refugees, and one reason for that is grief. Exile is a place of loss. Those in exile mourn a way of life that no longer exists except as a distant memory. They long to return to that place of familiarity, of home, but also know somehow that it will never be possible.

When God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to a people in exile, God spoke to their loss and their grief, to their dislocation. And the surprising word of God to those exiles came as a set of radical commands: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; marry and raise children; encourage your children to marry and raise children.” In other words: “Settle down and settle in, put down roots, be fully and completely where you are, live your life in this place.”

These commands must have come like a splash of ice-cold water thrown in the faces of broken-hearted people who were longing for a return to their home in Jerusalem. God said, in essence, stop looking back. This is the life you have; start living it.

The people must have known somehow that the life they longed to return to no longer existed, if in fact it ever had. In exile, you know, we tend to idealize the past. Things were so much better back in the old days. Well, the old days had their own share of problems. And to become consumed in the present by a longing for things to be the way they once were is to lose sight of the way things are in the here and now. The other temptation in exile is to hope only for the future, to put things on hold and wait for life to get better.

But God calls the exiles to what one holy person has described as the sacrament of the present moment. The sacrament of the present moment is an attitude of heart that sees everything as holy, everything as sacred, and sees all that is present as holy and sacred. To live in the past, longing for a way of life that no longer exists, is to miss the blessing of today. To reach forward to a future that does not yet exist, always hoping for a time when things will be better, is also to miss the blessing of today. In fact, traditional Judaism sees that as arrogance — like picking God's pocket, taking that which does not yet belong to us.

It is easy for us to become consumed by the past or obsessed with the future because we are finite creatures, and we are bound by time. But there is another dimension to time, akin to the sacrament of the present moment, and that is what Paul Tillich called the “Eternal Now.” He wrote:

People who are never aware of this dimension lose the possibility of resting in the present. …. They are held by the past and cannot separate themselves from it, or they escape towards the future, unable to rest in the present.

This Eternal Now that Paul Tillich spoke of is where God dwells, and if we would dwell with God, that is how we must approach our lives as well. In the place of exile, when we find ourselves feeling like refugees from the present, it is easy to live in the past or long for the future. But instead, God tells us to build houses and plant gardens, to put down roots and settle in, to see the inherent blessing where we are and how we are.

And there is one more radical command from God: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray for it, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” In other words, it is not enough just to be where we are. We have to bind ourselves in prayer and practice to the well-being of our present location in time and space.

This congregation does seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you. You engage in ministry and social justice; you feed the hungry; you reach out to the poor and homeless; the very presence of this building in the heart of the city serves as a kind of physical testimony to Christ’s presence here. I think you know that we all benefit from a city that is vibrant, diverse, lively, and safe. You know that and you work for that outcome, for the welfare of this city.

But I think God might be challenging us to see our city as larger than Hartford. In reality, we live in a global city. The world is our neighborhood. And from our own place of spiritual dislocation, we are to seek the welfare of the world, to pray for it, to practice peace and justice and compassion with and for all peoples.

The floods in Pakistan drown our neighbors. The wars in Africa wound our children. The earthquakes in Haiti uproot our sisters and brothers. If the welfare of the world is in jeopardy, so is our own.

This may not be where we wanted to find ourselves. It is hard to put your energy into caring for others when you are worried about your own survival. And you do have to worry about that, if you are to be a responsible human being. Some here are concerned with the survival of this church; others are dealing with physical or financial survival; some with spiritual survival. But all of us probably experience some sense of dislocation; all of us are refugees of one kind or another. And here is the good news about our own exile. Sometimes it takes this dislocation to help us see what God is doing.

Jesus once encountered a group of exiles, ten lepers forced out of their homes, exiled from society, refugees on the move with no place to go. They cried out to him for mercy, for help. And he answered them with healing. But only one came back to say thank you. And that one was a Samaritan, the one who experienced a double dislocation – from his leprosy and his status as a religious outsider.

Maybe that dislocation prevented him from taking for granted Jesus’ intervention. Maybe his losses had attuned his heart to gratitude at the unexpected gift. Maybe he had lived with hardship so long he had given up thinking he deserved anything better, so the healing came as pure grace. The others, as they were healed, went back to the priest, and, implied in that action, returned to their old way of life. But the Samaritan did not. He turned instead to Jesus, with praise and thanksgiving, with a new understanding of the healing, saving power of faith.

There is blessing in exile. There is help and healing and home for refugees. Sometimes we are in a position to offer those gifts of God to others who are in need, and sometimes we ourselves are the ones in need. Either way, we are called to seek the welfare of our world, to be at home in our dislocation, and to give thanks to God for all God’s gifts.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in the time of trouble, in the time of now.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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