Perhaps it is coincidence, although I expect not. It never really is. For it is so that in these past days I have twice found myself attempting to bring the story and the experience of the Biblical Exile alive. First with our confirmation team to a group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. And again, a few days later, with a small group of adults in our synod’s Diakonia program as together we make our way through the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures in far too few weeks to do it justice. And yes, it is, I expect, a bit easier for more of us to have a sense of ‘exile’ after this past year when many have felt ‘far from home’ even while those most fortunate among us have been so privileged as to be able to spend more time ‘at home.’
Perhaps even more than this, in ways paralleling the stories surrounding the Biblical exile, I have realized once more that both what we do and what we do not do have consequences and those consequences could very well perceived to be punishment — or ‘exile.’ And to be sure, as has always been so, this punishment does not necessarily fall only on those who most deserve it, but rather on the whole of us as we realize we all bear the wounds and the scars of it. Indeed, sometimes, far too often often, the most undeserving suffer most of all.
So it is today we hear the words of the Prophet — among the first, or at least among the first recorded, spoken by Isaiah (or one of his disciples) to God’s people in Babylon, far from home, in exile.
And as we listen to this resounding poetry now, we are reminded through his beautiful cadence that much suffering, a whole lot of experiences of exile, find their roots in idolatry. It begins in our forgetting that nothing and no one is equal to the Holy One. Indeed, all exile, it seems to me, finds its start in our own self imposed exile from the heart of God.
So this is how I have come to understand our ‘own self imposed exile from the heart of God.’ Particularly through the lens of these last many months.
But first a little background…
In the summer before the pandemic came home, I enjoyed a two month sabbatical. I spent a few precious days of that time on the Civil Rights Trail between Birmingham and Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. I was also glad for the hours I had before and after, to read all I could about the monumental events of those days when the idolatry that is represented by racism was called out and confronted at great cost. A cost which has not yet been fully paid.
Now much in my own call as pastor in these last years prepared me for that learning as together we have repeatedly witnessed the ongoing effects of racism in our nation and yes, in the community I call home.
This is also so. While I serve an almost exclusively white congregation in a racially diverse community, I have gratefully been welcomed into relationship with community members and faith leaders whose skin color and therefore, whose life experience, differs powerfully from my own. Without a doubt, these relationships have helped open not only my eyes, but also my heart to so much that is broken.
When I returned from that time away, though, my heart was especially full, and so I invited others to join me in the exploration of a part of our shared history most of us have not known. By the wonder of Zoom, the conversation has continued as week by week, month after month, we have explored together historical events and the themes of our faith as they have come together to expose an idolatry which still too much is all of ours. I have been more than grateful for these companions on the way. I cannot begin to say what gift they have been to me.
And then a colleague, a fellow pastor, asked me to audit a course on White Supremacy and the Church. I jumped right in and in these last days I have found myself stretched as I wrapped up reading a little book: White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems that Divide Us, by Daniel Hill.
It is true that from time to time I chafed at some of what I read, for it was birthed in a theological tradition far different from my own. At the same time, I was pulled in by the deep wisdom of a pastor who put his own experience of race and racism and systemic racism and yes, white supremacy, so powerfully into words.
At the heart of what Pastor Hill offers is this:
Pointing to the observation of C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, we are reminded that “the devil is a liar.” (Both C.S. Lewis and Pastor Hill refer, of course, to the very words of Jesus where he says that ‘the devil is the father of lies.’ (John 8:39-59.) And the lie that we have bought into in this country is one of white supremacy: that we are living under the assumption, in a system, that has been built and nurtured by the lie that there is a hierarchy based on the color of our skin.
And yes, this is only most obviously true of those who carry torches and shout slogans and threaten and do violence. It is also true of those of us (and I include myself in this) who find it difficult to talk about it and who, perhaps, only noticed the full impact of it in these last hard months as it has become so apparent that this pandemic has hit harder:
- Those without adequate health care,
- Those living in substandard or overcrowded housing,
- Those who have to ‘go to work,’ not having the privilege to stay at home,
- Yes, those who, for the most part, were born with a darker skin pigment than mine.
Without a doubt, ‘white supremacy’ is idolatry. Anything where we put our trust in before God is idolatry. And if we do not find ways to name it, to stand up against it, to do all we can to eradicate it, then that idolatry is also ours.
This is a hard word, it surely is. And there are lots of reasons we turn our backs on it, trying to ignore it. Fear, perhaps. Not wanting to offend, as well. Or just plain ignorance. All have been true of me. All, including ignorance, continue to be true of me, even as I am seeking to learn.
So it is today that a prophet from long ago, speaking into a wholly different time and place and experience, reminds us that anything we put before God is idolatry. And that such idolatry puts us far from the heart of God even before our physical exile takes shape.
It is also true that the prophet offers a word of hope now. He reminds us that even that which has forced us far from “home,” physically or otherwise, does not need to have the last word.
For this bit of Isaiah ends in this way:
- Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
- They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
- They shall run and not be weary,
- They shall walk and not faint.
Our present exile has forced me to recognize how the ways in which I have swallowed the devil’s lie that some among us are better than others in God’s eyes — either by what I have done or what I have failed to do. And yes, as a result, others have surely been forced into a place of ‘exile’ — far from God’s intent for them all along. But in this present exile, we are promised that as we ‘wait for the Lord,’ God will give us what we need to look at the truth of what has been and the strength and the will to name it and then to begin to shape a new world.
Seeing it for what it is is the start of it.
We can only trust God will provide for what must surely happen next.
So that not one of God’s Beloved will be in exile ever again.
So that one day soon we can all be at home in the heart of God where we belong.
- In a spirit of full disclosure, I am not actually preaching this week as it is our intern’s turn. Perhaps this gives me the freedom to go down this path today. I am certainly grateful for all of you who join me in this pondering for as I am able to put God’s leading into words here, I gain the ability to articulate this call in other ways, too. So thank you for being a community where I can work these things out.
- For that matter, I do not know how or if this will ‘preach’ for you this week. There are certainly plenty of other ‘idolatries’ you could name and explore should you be called to ground your proclamation in Isaiah’s prophecy. Either way, I cannot help but believe this is a conversation we are called to foster now. I do believe this is God’s call to us in this time.
- Even if you do not feel called to go down this path in public ways in the days to come, does this conversation with Isaiah’s intent at least make sense to you?
- Even if you are not called to preach or even teach this now, what do you think we can be doing together to lean into the strength that God offers through the prophet so that we might follow this important call? For ‘white supremacy’ has placed us all in a kind of exile. We are from God’s heart, all of us. And I do believe God intends another way.