Faith in Exile
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Isaiah 55:10-13
Before I jump in, a quick biblical history lesson: the people we follow throughout the Old Testament, those we’d eventually call the Jews, started as the twelve tribes of Jacob, who was later called Israel. Those twelve tribes eventually split into two kingdoms: the southern kingdom, called Judah; and the northern kingdom, called Israel. Judah is where Jerusalem was. It’s where David and Solomon established their kingdoms. It’s where the temple was built—where the very presence of God dwelled, glorious. The temple was the beating heart of its people.
The people of Judah, of Jerusalem, had been on the losing end of a war with major powers in the area—first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. Even the northern kingdom of Israel aligned themselves against Judah. It was the Babylonians who emerged from these wars victorious. Their king Nebuchadnezzar came and razed the city. Reduced it to rubble. Worst of all, he destroyed the temple, the home of their God, the place that held their common identity. It was gone.
After Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, he stole its people. He took craftsmen and those who had gifts that he thought would make his own kingdom ever greater. He plucked them from their communities and deported them to Babylon, servants of the victors.
The passage we heard from Isaiah was written for those exiles in Babylon. Those who no longer had a home. Those who were missing their families and neighbors. Those who deeply grieved the destruction of their holy place.
Our plight here and now is not so desperate as those stolen away from Jerusalem. We have not lost our homes. We have not lost our country. Our church, as you can see, has not been destroyed.
But this is hard. Some of us have been separated from our families for longer than we’ve ever been. Those of us who are more vulnerable to the virus have been locked in our homes for four months now. Cases in our state are shooting up, and death rates are starting to rise again nationally. We are living in a state of permanent uncertainty, a state of constant loss, a state of grief for a way of life we have lost.
Our church building has not been destroyed, but we haven’t worshiped here together since March 7. We haven’t sang together since March 7. We haven’t hugged each other since March 7. We haven’t hugged anyone except those we live with. I don’t think we totally realize what kind of loss that is. We haven’t had communion since March 7.
We are in exile. We don’t know when it’s going to end. We don’t know when we’ll get to go home.
The exiles didn’t know when they’d go home, and even if they could go home, the temple was gone. Where would they find God now?
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
This scripture is a shift of perspective. These words ask the exiles to do something radical: to move God beyond the sacred temple and into this world they can see, touch, hear, and smell, even if that place is Babylon. It moves them from a longing for the temple, which is gone, to recognizing the joyful presence of God in the mountains and the hills and the trees—in all creation.
In these words, God refreshes their hope.
We are exiles, and we long for our community. Of course we do. I don’t want to diminish the grief we all feel. I know that our temple is not a building but the people who gather in the building. Our temple is the gathering itself. Being together in our sanctuary. Singing, hugging, laughing, praying. And we can’t gather. Not many of us, at least, and not the way we want to. Not without putting each other in danger.
I want you to know that this breaks my heart every single day. I don’t want to be leading worship from zoom. It’s so much harder and more draining than leading worship in person. I find myself constantly reaching for you during worship, hoping to feel your presence. And I do feel it, in a way. A way I’m grateful for. Because at least we have this. If this pandemic had happened twenty years ago, I don’t know what we’d be doing. But of course I miss our gathering which is our temple.
I am exiled with you.
But God is not gone, nor is God only present in the gatherings we can’t have right now. Is it usually easier to experience God’s presence in those gatherings? Yes. No question. Worship helps us to practice experiencing God. It comes easy in the sanctuary, when we are with our family of faith, singing songs of praise, and are sent out with the nourishment of communion. Worship strengthens us so that when we leave the sanctuary we can recognize God beyond the sanctuary. Worship is not where our faith ends, it’s where it begins.
All those Sundays of gathering to worship in this building have prepared us for such a time as now. For recognizing God in the world around us.
Our practice now is to see the songs bursting from the mountains and the hills, to hear the trees of the fields clapping their hands. To have gratitude for the ways God continues to move in our lives, even in exile. Gratitude that we can still gather in some sort of way, even if that way is Zoom. Gratitude for all the phone calls I know you’re all making to one another, to check up on each other. Gratitude for our musicians who give us sacred times of prayer through Taize and Open Sanctuary. Gratitude that God continues to move through this community, even as we can’t gather.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
God gives us hope. It’s all around us. Every day. Wherever we are. We’ve been practicing seeing that hope together in this sanctuary every Sunday for a long time before this exile. Now is when we put that practice to work.