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Tales of Exile and Return

Text: Jeremiah 29:1-14

1These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.  2This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.  3The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.  It said: 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

10For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

I’d like to begin this morning by telling you a story.  After all, the Bible is full of stories, is it not, of heroes and kings, prophets and poets, and ordinary women and men who encounter God in extraordinary ways.  But this is a story you won’t find in your pew Bibles.  It’s an old Hasidic tale, one the rabbis used to tell.  And it goes something like this:

Once there was a man named Isaac, Isaac son of Yekel.  He lived a very long time ago in Krakow.  Isaac was a good man who had a wife and five beautiful daughters.  But he was very poor and had no money for a dowry for any of his daughters, so none of them could marry.  So Isaac prayed, and prayed, and prayed.  Then one night, Isaac had a dream.  And in his dream he saw a city he’d never visited, clearly laid out in front of him.  And then he heard a voice saying, “Isaac, son of Yekel, this is the city of Prague.  Go to the center of the city where you will find a bridge.  Dig under that bridge, and there you will find a buried treasure.”

Isaac was troubled by the dream because it was a recurring dream.  He dreamed the same dream every night for a week.  Every night it was the same – the city, the voice, the bridge, the treasure.  Finally he did the only thing he could do – he packed his shovel and set out for the city of Prague on foot, walking hundreds of miles to get there.

When Isaac finally reached the city he saw it was laid out exactly as it was in his dream.  And just as the voice had promised, he found the bridge in the center of the city.  As soon as night fell Isaac began to dig.  And he dug, and he dug, and he dug, until someone grabbed him roughly by the shoulder and spun him around and snarled at him, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”  Isaac didn’t know how to respond to the soldier who had been guarding the bridge, so Isaac told him the truth about the dream and the voice which had told him of the bridge and the buried treasure.

The guard roared with laughter at Isaac and said, “What would happen if we all ran around following our dreams?  You know where I’d be right now?  I’d be in Krakow, looking for some Jew named Isaac son of Yekel who’s got a treasure buried underneath his kitchen stove.  But half the Jews in Krakow are named Isaac, and the other half are named Yekel, and who would be foolish enough to listen to a voice in a dream anyway.”  And the guard ordered Isaac to go home.

And home Isaac went – as fast as he could.  At least as fast as he could go, walking for hundreds of miles on foot!  When he reached home, Isaac raced into the kitchen, moved the stove, dug underneath it, and there he found a buried treasure.  With more than enough money for a dowry for each of  his five daughters, with so much money left over that Isaac was able to pay off all his debts, meaning he’d never have to work again.  But there was still so much money left over that Isaac didn’t know what to do with it all.  So he prayed, and then spent the rest of the money to build a synagogue and a Jewish cultural center in Krakow which still bear his name.

Rabbinic tales like these are designed to convey multiple truths, and layers of truths, but I chose this one story in particular to illustrate this morning’s Scripture passage which is a similar tale of sorts, a Tale of Exile and Return.  Written sometime around 597 BCE, Jeremiah’s letter is addressed to a remnant of the Israelites from the Southern Kingdom of Judah who had survived the first wave of the Babylonian invasion but who had subsequently been carried away into exile in Babylon, to live in captivity in a foreign land, under the ruling might of the Babylonian Empire.  Like our Hasidic Tale, the Biblical books of Jeremiah and Lamentations reflect the struggles and difficulties of the long and sacred journey that the Israelites must take, before they can find their way home again.

This morning, I want to invite you to take some time to reflect upon your own life’s journey.  Do you remember your first time away from home?  How old were you when you first left home?  What were the circumstances surrounding your leaving?  More importantly, have you been able to return home?  Where is home for you now?  Have you arrived at a new home, or are you a pilgrim, a traveler on the road, still searching for your treasure?

No matter where we are on life’s journey, whatever we are looking for the most, is probably right under our very noses.  The poet E. E. Cummings once wrote: “Humanity, I love you, because you are perpetually putting the secret of life in your pants and forgetting it’s there and sitting down on it.”

According to our Hasidic tale, our treasure is where it has always been, where we’ve always suspected that it would be, but we will not find it until we’ve made a long and sacred journey.  Remember that the treasure in our story was in Isaac’s home all along, but the knowledge of the treasure could only be found in Prague.  Access to the treasure in our home can only be obtained after taking a long journey far from the comfort and familiarity of home.

How many of us here this morning have left the religious traditions in which we were raised?  How many of us had to leave home before we could come to a full knowledge or appreciation of God?  Yes, God was with us all along.  But the knowledge of God, and the experience of sensing God’s presence with us, could only be attained from a distance.

The book of Deuteronomy tells us that God’s word is very near to us.  In Moses’ final speech to the Israelites, as recorded in Deuteronomy 30:11-14, the word of God is not up in heaven where our thoughts cannot reach, nor is it beyond the ocean on some distant beach.  No, according to Moses, the giver of the Law, the Torah, God’s word is near to us, in our innermost part – it is on our lips, and alive in our hearts.  And yet, the Israelites were forced to wander around the desert wilderness for no less than 40 years, before they were able to grasp or understand that word, that nearness of God, that would enable them to finally enter the Promised Land and go home.  It was a long journey, a sacred journey, that lasted a lifetime.

Recall the words of Psalm 139 from our call to worship this morning – every thought, every act, every aspect of our very being is known to God, for God is so near to us, everywhere we may go.  Listen again to the words of the Psalmist: “Where can I go to flee from Your Spirit?  Or from Your Presence, where can I hide?  If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I fall down into the deepest darkness, You are by my side.  Darkness cannot hide me from You, for even the night is as light to You, because the night will shine as bright as day.”

It is clear from the Scripture that there is nowhere we can go to escape the loving reach of God: “Even if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, for Your right hand is holding me.”  There is no place that God would send us, no place of exile, no place that we could ever chose to go, or be forced into going, where we could ever disappear from the loving and watchful care of God, our Creator.

Even so, journeys into exile take us far from home – to distant and unfamiliar lands, cultures, and societies.  Our treasure may well be at home, in our hearts, but a long trip into exile can show us exactly what we have at home, in ways that home could never tell us.  A journey into exile will cause us to gain a life-transforming perspective that we never would have had, if we had just stayed home.

Journeying far from home will take us to the bridges – to the edges, to the margins, where we can encounter God.  On the bridges of life where faith meets politics, where faith meets science, in the places where the world is undergoing the most change, that is where God is, and the place where we are most needed.  The Spirit of God meets us there, atop those bridges.

When we travel to the margins we can build new homes and create new communities for those who have none.  On those bridges we can stand together with refugees and political asylees who have traveled far from home, who know much more about exile than most of us ever could.  Atop those bridges we can choose to embrace victims of violence, especially those who are victims of religious violence – our Islamic brothers and sisters who are suffering persecution at the hands of fearful, confused, and misguided Christians.  We can offer support to those teenagers, especially those who are transgender, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, who have been driven to the margins of society and driven to suicide by the hands of Bible-wielding bullies.  We can hardly turn on a television or surf the Internet without being confronted by their images.  But this past week, churches everywhere, including our own Alliance of Baptists, have begun to make themselves heard – standing in solidarity with these children of God, who bear the image of God, and show us something of God that we would never have known if we had just stayed home.

Journeying is a communal expedition, a pilgrimage we must make together.  When we are in exile, we are exposed to new cultures, to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.  Living in exile gives us the opportunity to hear new voices, which are different from our own, telling us how they see the world.  And if we listen to them carefully, we might realize that what they’re telling us just might be the truth.  These voices are the voices of the poor, to whom we must listen if it’s God’s voice that we want to hear.

In those moments when we feel most in exile, when we are lost, alone, and confused, take heart, because it is precisely in those moments that we are most apt to encounter God.  It is out on those bridges that we meet God – whenever we follow in the footsteps of Jesus and bring good news to the poor, set free all who are oppressed, and help those who are spiritually blind to see, then we proclaim to the world the favor of God.

Standing with God on the bridges, in exile, enables us to see the connections between the gospel and our world.  Sometimes these new connections will lead us back home, allowing the gospel to connect us with people and places from our past.  Our time spent on the bridges is, after all, time spent with God, which gives us new knowledge, sacred knowledge, that is  meant to be shared with others back home in our communities.  Sometimes this experience of sacred knowing will lead us to a new home – like scouts in a new country, charting new maps for those who will follow, as we seek out new worlds, new homes, led by the Spirit to boldly go where no one has gone before.

But just what does it mean to return home or to establish a new home?  Remember from our tale this morning that the bridge can only give us the knowledge of the treasure (which is really knowledge of God) that can only be gained in exile.  But please don’t make the mistake of associating the knowledge with the treasure.  The treasure is still at home, right where it’s always been.  What we learn out on the bridge, the knowledge of God, of our neighbors, and of ourselves, will always send us back home and lead us to discover our treasure.  As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be.”  For where your treasure is, there is your heart.  But how are we to discover this treasure?  In the same sermon, Jesus again says to us “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Jesus might well have been quoting from our Scripture passage this morning, for Jeremiah’s letter to the remnant in exile is, at its heart, a tale not of exile, but a tale of return.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart . . . and I will gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.  (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

On the bridges, we learn to know God, to know ourselves, and to know our neighbors.  But life is an integration in which we have to apply that knowledge, and apply every gift and talent we have to discovering our treasure, which I dare say, is equivalent to discovering God himself, or herself as the case may be.  You have to do your own digging, whether under far away bridges, or under your own kitchen stove.  The church can’t do it for you.  This task belongs to you, and you alone.  But in a diverse community like Old Cambridge Baptist Church, we promise to walk with you on your journey as you integrate what you need to know and what you need to do, with who you need to become.  And will we ask if you’ve done your digging this week.  I hope you’ve been handed a shovel this morning.  So pack your bags, and start digging.  And be sure to let us know who and what you find.

In God’s name.  Amen.

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