I have been sitting with the words of the prophet Isaiah in these last days. And I have been wondering at how his words first heard by a broken, lost people must have sounded. I have been wondering what it means that he spoke to a people in exile. And, yes, I am trying to hear it through my ears, for our experience now.
But first, please hear me when I say this. I write now with all due humility as I try to consider what ‘exile’ must have been and still is as it is experienced the world over. I know that I know little of it.
Ever since the pandemic came home to us last spring, I have been thinking about ‘the exile’ as a metaphor or experience which might speak to it, to us as well. I think, though, that in April it was still just an ‘idea.’ It was an experience which had not found its way into my soul, our collective soul, just yet. I am almost afraid to say that it has more-so now, though, as I know that a sense of what this is can and very possibly will dig its way deeper and deeper into me, into us. I pray that I’m wrong, I really do…
But the metaphor still somehow works, doesn’t it? Even if I, if we, never experience ‘exile’ as did the first hearers of these words, as have so many since… Indeed, even if we do not know exile in this way, I expect we know it still. Or so it seems to me. For ‘exile’ is to be far from home, isn’t it? And for people of faith who know our home to be in the Holy One, in God, aren’t we often already there?
For aren’t we already far from God:
- In the ways in which those with more have disregarded, ignored, forgotten about those with so much less, yes?
- In how we have rejected the stranger at the border and in our own neighborhoods?
- In our own inflated pride which makes itself known sometimes as fear and at other times in our willful arrogance and blinds us to what matters most?
- In how we, how I, have believed that I am somehow protected because of my own relative wealth, my advanced degrees, the richness of my relationships?
- In how, yes, I have taken credit for far too much which was always, only gift?
The metaphor works, doesn’t it, for don’t we hear the strains of all the above again and again in the prophets? And in the case of today’s first reading in the voice of Isaiah?
For consider with me the words which came before even in just the first chapter of the recorded words of this prophet:
- “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me…” (1:2b)
- “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;” (1:11)
- “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow…” (1:16-17)
Or this, a little nearer in proximity to our reading for today:
“Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower.”( 24:1-2)
And oh, can’t you see the experience of a pandemic which knows no boundaries in those words?
Aren’t each and all of these calls to recognize that we have already lost our way, so much so that true experience of ‘exile’ is already ours even while the prophet brings dire warnings of what is yet to come?
Indeed, as minor as these may seem from the perspective of history and in comparison to so many living this in the world today, from the beginning, I have recognized how our current experiences may feel a bit like ‘exile.’
- As though we are among those forced to be far from home.
- Or we are somehow among those left behind without the usual things which have always provided direction and comfort and peace.
- Or as we begin to see and understand that those so much more vulnerable than you and I suffer ‘exile’ sooner and harder than perhaps we ever shall. As is almost always the case.
Indeed, perhaps our ‘temple’ has not been destroyed, for instance, but our access to it (multiplied a million times over) in many cases has been so necessarily limited as to make it seem to not be really ‘ours’ any more. At least not as we remember it.
So perhaps we might rightly begin to see that what has come before has led to this. That greed, and misplaced values and everything that already divided us one from another has led to this moment. And that in our hearts if not (yet) in our actual experiences this could well be considered a time of ‘exile’ already. Particularly if we understand it as already having been so — far from God, our home — even before ‘armies’ came and life changed forever.
And so it is with all of this it is easy to hear the prophets of old echoing, still speaking powerful and necessary truth to us now in this world, in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our hearts. Indeed, in my own heart.
For where God reigns, where the reign of God is acknowledged and where those who are so called seek to live into it?
- It is there that wealth is not hoarded, it is shared.
- And people are not considered less than because of the color of their skin, their first language, the place of their birth.
- And life in all of its wondrous forms (human, animal, and the earth and sky themselves) is protected and nurtured.
- And yes, I will say it, leaders do their utmost to live into the truth that their call is to serve not their own interests but that of others. Especially the weakest, most vulnerable, hurting among us.
In the realm of God, the call to shape a better world is heeded.
So yes, I do fear that this time of being ‘far from home’ this ‘time of exile’ was to be expected, if we give any credence at all to the prophets of old.
And yet, this is also so. We hear today that so long ago and also today: into this very time, we hear the promise of the prophet now, this wondrous and certain truth that God is not done with us yet. That in our discouragement, our grief, our fear God still holds the future which will be marked by:
A time of feasting, the likes of which we have never known before.
A time when the shroud which covers us all, every one of us, will be destroyed.
A time when death itself will be swallowed up.
A time when God will end down to wipe away tears from all faces. From all of them.
A time when our disgrace will be taken away.
Every single bit of it.
One can certainly see why these amazing images speak at funerals, which is typically when I read these words.
One an understand why they lift up those who have come to the end of all they have ever known, and loved, and relied upon in this life.
So yes, perhaps it is so that we all find ourselves there as well, even as the people Isaiah preached to did so long ago:
At the end of all we have ever known.
And needing to grieve it. And recognize our own role and/or responsibility in it if necessary. And needing to be reminded that in the end:
God will bring the party.
And God will destroy all that would threaten the celebration.
And God will bend down with the handkerchief which will wipe away our residual tears.
And, yes, God will take away all those reasons we carry for regret:
all those failures and losses, admitted or not, which weigh us down.
I for one want that party now.
And yet, I also know it is not yet time, that this time of ‘exile’ is not yet past, it may not even have fully begun in all of its ramifications and implications.
Even so, I am holding close to the promise that this is finally God’s intent for us all.
And I am wondering what it might mean if some of us, even a remnant of us, would hear the call to recognize the ‘exile’ we are already experiencing. Not just in the midst of this pandemic, but perhaps long before this time as we have experienced it in our distance from our ‘home in God. An exile which has been self imposed perhaps. One that has implications for so many innocent ones as well.
I wonder if we could so imagine what God has in store that we could, as heralds of all that God intends, begin to shape a world which the prophet so beautifully imagines now.
Because while we cannot end ‘this exile’ on our own, perhaps holding up for all to see what God hopes for all of God’s beloved would be a step in that direction. Indeed, maybe that alone would give the Holy room to stretch and grow and become ever more evident even now…
- I know my pondering is heavy these days. Perhaps this is a reflection of the state of the world. Even so, how does the image, the known experience of ‘exile’ describe the experience of many, perhaps you and me, even now?
- It helps me to begin by thinking of ‘exile’ as something we too often know in our relationship with God which is experienced as a distance brought about by our own attitudes and actions. Does this make sense to you as well?
- The image of the ‘mountain party’ and God’s removing the shroud and swallowing up death and leaning down to wipe away tears and taking away all our shame is one that speaks volumes of hope into this dark time, into any dark time.
- How might it boost us and bear us on our way?
- How might this be even more so for those who are more vulnerable, so much more affected than you and I?
- And how might we be not only those who point the world to this hope, but also be among those who move the world closer to God’s own wondrous future even now?
- Or rather, how might we get out of the way and let God do what God always does as the prophet so resoundingly describes?