When we found our house twelve years ago, one of the things that really made me fall in love with it was the yard and the flowers out back. The lady who had lived there had clearly spent time and energy and love developing the roses and various plants all around the border. There was a big shed and a large patio, and I knew this was where we were going to land.
But it didn’t take long before I started taking things out and putting other things in—changing the border, changing the retaining walls, tearing down the shed…and making the yard my own. That’s the beauty of moving into a home: you can paint and put your own pictures up and move your furniture in and let it become not just your house but your home. A place that reflects who you are and what you value.
It’s a sign that you plan to be there for a while. But that wasn’t what the Israelites wanted, at all. The Babylonian army had come into their country and torn them from their homes—from their fields—from their communities and friends and family—from the Temple. They were sent into exile, condemned to live in another country with different language and different culture and different gods. And I can’t imagine they were given the nice places to live and the good fields to own. They were, if not slaves, at least the bottom of the social status. They were there to make Babylon greater.
You can imagine how little they were interested in doing that. You can imagine how much they wanted to go back to the Promised Land, to return to what they knew and what they loved, to return to their worship and their fellowship and their God. You can imagine because, in some ways, we have been living in a sort of exile since the COVID pandemic began. We were asked to abandon our worship spaces and ways of life almost without warning. We were told what not to do and where not to go. Our children were pulled from schools and kept out of playgrounds. The rolls of our teachers and parents were upended.
We’ve been forced to stay in our homes, and we don’t like it. It’s been inconvenient, and I, for one, have gotten crankier. Work doesn’t look the same. Vacations haven’t quite gotten off the ground like we had hoped. The whole thing has put a wrench in our regular ways of living. And no one wants to stay like this. We are itching to start things back up—to get to the pool, to touch and hug those we haven’t seen, to even gather in person for meetings! And, of course, to get back to worship. But we don’t want to just get back to the building. We want what we had before—the fellowship, the communion, the singing, the faces. And no matter when we go back, those things won’t be the same—for a long time, at least.
We have no intention of putting down roots in this way of life. We don’t want to hang up our pictures and plant our gardens in the house that we’ve been forced into. We aren’t going to stay here forever. We won’t be here long.
That was the hope of the Israelites, too. But then Jeremiah came along with his message to the people, telling them to build their houses and get on with their lives, right where they are. Plant their gardens and fields. Marry and start families. Don’t wait to live until you’re where you want to be. Live today. Live now. Because God can be found wherever you go. It was a reminder that they didn’t need the Temple to worship. They didn’t need to be home to make a home.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like life has been put on hold while all this has been going on. I’m even surprised when I discover that people are selling homes and moving—as if life goes on. It’s even been hard to begin thinking about returning to worship—even if it is in a diminished sense. It’s like the virus pushed ‘pause’ on everything, and I’m stuck in this weird Groundhog’s Day loop.
But Jeremiah doesn’t allow for such purposeless thinking. He tells the people—and us—to put down roots. Find new ways to do things—and learn to love those new ways—learn to thrive in those new ways. Find ways to worship and ways to play and ways to shop and ways to fellowship that still honor where we are without losing a sense of who we are. Whose we are.
Because our baptismal promises haven’t changed. God has still claimed us and called us into the world to proclaim the good news—just with masks, now. God has ordained us in our baptism to minister—wherever we are—to the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the left out, the bullied. Whether or not we meet in person, our mission is still to ‘walk with Christ and neighbor, healing brokenness together.’
So, who is your neighbor? Who are the ones with whom you can serve together? We have this new kitchen we barely got to use before we had to shut down. How can we offer meals to those who need them? How do we determine those who need meals when they aren’t coming into the church building?
This is a time for us to use our creativity and inspiration to be more than we’ve been. This pandemic has been a blessing, creating space for us to imagine how we will be in the future. We don’t need to—nor should we—go back to exactly what we’ve done before. Before, we longed to be the church of the 1960’s, when our sanctuaries were full, youth ministry was exciting and vibrant, Christmas programs brought down the house, and society revolved around Sunday and Wednesday programming.
Those were all exhilarating expressions of faith—but they’re not the only expressions. Maybe it’s time to teach our kids about faith at home, through prayer, conversation, and Bible reading. Maybe we can find ways to have ‘watch parties’ for worship, encouraging one another and praying for each other in small groups. Maybe we can sing our hearts out in our cars and pray at various times during the day in the Sanctuary and engage in Bible study with family and friends and neighbors.
The truth is, the Church has always been an exile experience. Jesus was deemed an outsider and a trouble-maker. He had no place to call home during his ministry. And yet, every place was his home. Every place was a place to worship and do ministry. The early Church met in homes and gathered around letters from Paul and potluck meals. They didn’t have buildings and formalized liturgy and organs. They had each other—and they had people to minister to.
Even when the Church was an expected part of culture—whether in the Holy Roman Empire, state churches across Europe, or even in the newly formed United States—she has been in exile. She has been in exile as the true church who has no allegiance to an empire, who speaks against injustice, who stands up to bullies, who has been beaten down by social norms. This Church, in her fullness, has always lived at the margins. She has planted her roots where decent people dare not enter. She has lived among the lepers in colonies separated from their families; she has sung spirituals with slaves ripped from their homes; she has danced with Native Americans seeking a place to land when their homes and cultures were ripped from their hands; she has journeyed with people forced to leave their homes because there was no longer a home to go to.
The Church has ministered through discomfort, inconvenience, violence, and despair. And she stands resolute, pointing to Christ on the cross as her way-finder. Christ, who died as one feeling exiled—“why have you forsaken me?”—planted the roots of the cross in exile, itself. And the tendrils of death could not hold him. They cannot hold us. Exile is not the end of the world—it is a shift in how we see it. Thanks to our loving God who went to the edge and back for our sake, we can see the beauty and purpose of life, even in places we prefer not to be.
It’s okay to put down roots in exile. You don’t wait to live until you’re where you want to be. Live now. Bloom now. Build now. For wherever you are, God is there—watering the flowers you have so lovingly sowed, awaiting the harvest of abundant life for all the world.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church