One of the sermons I preached that provoked people to talking with me after worship was the one where I confessed a certain amount of discomfort with the ethnic identity that characterizes many Lutheran churches. In that sermon (you may or may not remember) I said that along with the decline of the ethnicity of our congregations came a loss of identity. In a culture where lutefisk has been elevated to sacramental levels, we have a hard time adjusting to our new-found status as mainstream Canadians. The story of landing in Canada, of toiling to build a community that is greater than any one person, the faces perhaps forgotten, names remembered on plaques, but by and large theirs are no longer the stories that tell our story and from which we no longer forge our future.
And you may remember that I confessed that I often feel like an exile - rootless, homeless, with no connection to a greater historical narrative because of my background – where everything I have that uniquely identifies me (family, faith, place) has been adopted and not given to me by birth. I told you this not to burden you with my past, but because I don’t think that I’m alone in this. While the specifics may change the net results remain the same. I think we’ve become a society of exiles; nomadic wanderers seeking a place we can call home because we have been cut off from our own sense of personal or communal history.
Some therapists might tell me that my decision to enter pastoral ministry was a way of finding out who I am – a path out of my own personal exile, to give me an identity that was my own. This might be true for us as well, as we seek what it means to be the people of God in a world where God is only a rumour, a good idea, or tool to advance a political agenda. Maybe it means that God uses our own exilic past to set the agenda for our ministry.
It is no secret, indeed it has become almost a cliché to say that we live in a transient society. People have itchy feet. People go where the jobs are. This past week I was told that 40 000 new people are expected to move to Lethbridge over the next 10 years. Where are all these people coming from? What are they leaving behind in order to grasp something new?
But while we’re given tremendous opportunity to build something fresh, something that embodies our own hopes and fears, something that personify everything we love about ourselves, that something fresh doesn’t come without a cost.
Robert Kennedy once said,
“In far too many places – in pleasant suburbs as well as city streets – the home is a place to sleep and eat and watch television, but where it is located is not community – we live in too many places so we live no where. Long ago [philosopher] Alexis de Toqueville foresaw the fate of people without a community: “Each of them living apart is a stranger to the fate of all the rest. His children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of [humanity]; as for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but sees them not; he touches them, but feels them not…he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.” (RFK, To Seek a Newer World)
RFK and Alexis de Toqueville didn’t have to look any farther than today’s first reading to see the devastating effect of the loss of home and identity. The people of God, once mighty and feared, found themselves suddenly without a native soil. Jerusalem had been conquered, and the people sent into exile.
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people. How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal…Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”
To lose their land, to lose the holy city, was to lose everything. Their national identity fell into ruins. Their status as God’s chosen people had been called into question. God’s people had become wanderers once again, sent into the wilderness for ignoring God’s claim on their lives. Once again, they were looking for a road home.
About 2½ years ago, a young woman, new to Halifax, wandered into our church. Having just arrived in the city she didn’t know a soul, so she found her way to church, hoping the familiar hymns, well-rehearsed liturgy, and the instant family of a Lutheran church would provide her with some comfort, and help ease some of her loneliness and homesickness. As a pastor, my first inclination was to open my arms wide and say, “Welcome home!” and I know that’s what she needed to hear, as did many others who hungry for the intimacy of human contact and grounding of family. However, even in the most spiritualized sense of the word, we know that the church is not “home.” More accurately we should say that in the church you find your long lost sisters and brothers who are just as lost and homesick as you are, but we might as well be lost and homesick together.
The loss of home, of identity, of any moral or existential grounding, we are left with just a series of experiences that defy evaluation because there is nothing really to evaluate. In Douglas Coupland’s novel Girlfriend in a Coma, a young woman falls into a deep coma and wakes up 20 years later and is asked,
“What is the main thing you noticed – the major difference between the world you left and the world you woke up to?”
“A lack…a lack of convictions – of beliefs, of wisdom, or even of good old badness. No sorrows; no nothing. People…when I came back they only, well, existed. It was so sad.”
Or as preacher Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life. There is some memory of having being treated cruelly, and – a little deeper, perhaps, - the memory of having treated someone else cruelly as well. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of seeing the light and turning away from it, either because it is too beautiful to behold or because it spoils the dank but familiar darkness. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of reaching for forbidden fruit, of pushing away from loving arms, of breaking something just to prove that you can. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of doing whatever is necessary to feed and to comfort the self, because there is no one else to trust, no other purpose to serve, no other God to follow.
“For ages and ages this experience has been called sin – deadly alienation from the source of all life.”
As the people of God found out, this “deadly alienation” leads to exile.
“All sins are attempts to fill voids” wrote French philosopher Simone Weil. I think she’s right. We cannot stomach the God-shaped hole inside of us because it reminds us that we are in exile, so we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but it stubbornly refuses to be filled. “It rejects all substitutes. It insists on remaining bare. It is the holy of holies inside of us, which only God can fill.” (BBT)
However, when we are ready to honour the bare space instead of trying to stuff it full, then we are ready to consider what kind of life God may be calling us to. Our answers will be as varied as our sins, but they will involve more doing than talking, more renewal than remorse. Meanwhile, I do not believe that exile is the enemy we often make it out to be, although it may feel like we are being consumed by it. When we see how we have turned from God and towards whatever else soothes our anxious souls, at least for the moment, then and only then we do have what we need to begin turning back to where God wants us to be. Just as the people of God eventually found out, maybe exile is our only hope, the fire alarm that wakes us up to true resurrection and true renewal, and maybe even leads us down the path that will eventually guide us to our true home.
May this be so among us. Amen.