Maybe you have felt like you have been exiled this entire year. Maybe because of upheaval in your work life or your retired life or your family life, you have been in a constant state of uncertainty, flux, and anxiety. Perhaps you feel as if you’ve been away from the familiar, away from any kind of normal day-to-day, away from your “life” such as it once was. Perhaps you feel as if the landmarks that have helped you thus far to navigate your life’s journey have changed and that God—as God exists for you—hasn’t been much help.
Exile is a difficult, unsettling, hard and lonely experience. There is a very real, physical exile in which people cannot not return home without threat to life and liberty; there is another kind of exile that shunning and apathy create for a prisoner; there is the exiling experience of immigrants and foreigners who live in near constant uncertainty and hardship before and even when they are allowed to integrate; there is the emotional and spiritual exile that any one of us can experience to some extent over a lifetime.
Living with Covid is a kind of exile, is it not? Having the virus, being quarantined, and being separated from loved ones creates a new world to which individuals must embark. Living with Covid in our society and in our world is an exiling experience, just as living with grief, or in the aftermath of tragedy. You feel separated from others, in a bubble, separated from what-once-was, separated from the way others seem to go about their lives, and even separated from yourself and your dreams.
Finding life in exile is a difficult journey of the spirit. The quality of that life may not be the same; it may not be comfortable or desirable or enjoyable, but finding life is as necessary to the spirit, as breath is to the lungs. One must find a way to live in the midst of hardship.
Just ask the Israelites. The Israelites in today’s scripture passage have been living exile for 150 years. Or ask a Native American exiled on reservations. Or ask a person of color exiled to a different kind of reality than white America for, well, since their ancestors were put in shackles and forced to come here. Living in exile is possible but finding life in midst of exile is another thing entirely. One must find life even when something is missing. When something is not right. When something is constrained, lacking, broken or forlorn.
Our scripture was written to a people living in exile, a people struggling to find life in midst of enemy territory. Babylon invaded Judah at the beginning of the 6th century BCE and deported its leading thinkers, movers, and shakers to Babylon. That was how Empire tried to conquer a people: set their cities on fire, displace and dislocate their leading citizens, and burn or desecrate their places of worship. Our scripture is written many years after this happens. The writer known as Second Isaiah is less concerned with blaming the victims for their sins or any regretful behavior associated with this crisis, and more concerned to bring them a sense of hope and comfort where they are living now.
Second Isaiah was written to a people yearning for home. It was written for a people who had been dislocated for so long that they had nearly forgotten what it would mean to return to their home. After all, after a time, we begin to settle where we are. We put down roots and try to make a life or a living. We create a family that may or may not share the same affections or disaffections for the home we left. The Israelites were away for a long time—Babylon may have been the only home some of these exiles had ever known.
Taimaa and her husband Mohannad fled Syria seeking asylum in Europe in 2016. Their baby, Heln, was born a refugee. Taimaa was a music teacher before music was banned in her land. TIME magazine was there for Heln’s birth and chronicled their journey in a piece entitled, “Finding Home.” Taimaa and her husband leave the refugee camp where there are rats and disease for Estonia in 2017. However, the conditions aren’t much better. There, she tells the reporter, “There are no Muslims here. It is really hard to live in this society, where you are an outcast…My husband is worried; he doesn’t know if he will get a job here…[and] I’m sad. They don’t talk to us. If I say hello, they don’t answer.”
Listening to Taimaa, I wonder where she is now, one of so many displaced in this world. Listening to Taimaa, I wonder if she has found a home today with her husband and Heln. Listening to Taimaa, I wonder how her story can be so similar as those who are currently in exile in these United States. Listening to Taimaa, I realize that those who are far from home are not merely the exiles, but the ones who can no longer remember that they were once foreigners in a strange and unwelcoming land.
The prophet Isaiah speaks to the ones who do remember…those who can still taste and smell and see “home” in their hearts and in their mind’s eye…because they still keen for that which has been lost to them.
Friends, where is “home” for you? Has your sense of “home” changed over the years?
What do you do – what would you do—if you were separated from “home” as you know it? Who would you be? Whose would you be?
PBS tells the story about Ninja, a tomcat, who moved in 1996 with his owners from Utah to Washington State. He disappeared after the move only to show up at his old Utah address—850 miles away—and one year later. How did he know where to go? Cats, like Ninja, have a homing instinct, as do birds, bees, salmon, and sea creatures. Some animals seem to navigate by smell and some by sound, and some by magnetized cells in the brains. Do humans have a homing instinct? Researchers aren’t clear on this—but what is clear is that we know when we are NOT home and feel displaced. What makes that sense of displacement go away? What helps? What hurts? And what happens to our humanity if we can no longer identify with the loss of home?
In Isaiah’s passage, we hear the cry, “Comfort, o comfort my people” and the command comes from God, through the prophet. God and God’s representatives—the heavenly council—shall speak “tenderly” to the people of Jerusalem who have been displaced and exiled this long while. Those of you who have experienced a hard season of hurt, grief, or pain, know how powerful it is when a friend or loved one or even stranger speaks tenderly to you—in a way that acknowledges all that you have endured, in a way that seems to know “you” – the you that existed before the pain, the hurt, or the exile. Now imagine a “heavenly council” speaking tenderly to you and yours.
It is no small thing, this speaking tenderly. Speaking tenderly is sorely needed and part of the healing process. Taimaa yearned for someone to speak tenderly to her and to her family in her new land. They left Estonia for Berlin, in part, for that reason. To whom have you recently “spoken tenderly”?
Speaking tenderly, however important, can only go so far. In Isaiah, God promises that things will be set to rights. It is not enough to speak “tenderly,” as it were. One must have justice. Things must be put to rights.
Every valley that has been laid low must be lifted up. Every mountain is to be made low. Which is to say that those who have been empowered by disadvantaging others or puffed up by exploiting the weaknesses of the vulnerable will find themselves brought down by their inconsideration and ill-gotten gains. And those who have felt exiled by the rich and powerful or entrapped by the evil impulses of the latest war overlord—they will be found and lifted up. A way must be prepared in the wilderness for God to travel upon. We must prepare the way for peace and life in the wilderness. Before God’s glory is revealed, the people will make a way. Even in exile, the people will find a way to make a way, a path, a highway for God’s arrival.
When I was away at school, there was a brick walkway on which names were engraved. The names were in honor of “so and so” or in memory of someone, or a message from the benefactor of the particular brick. These bricks helped to pave the walkway between buildings. These bricks were a reminder of all the people who had come together to form a path on which I could then walk through rain or snow, in sunshine, or under clouds. The path was formed by others sacrificing a bit of themselves and their resources. I think of that path—and others like it—when I consider making a “highway for our God.” It takes all of us becoming the mortar, the brick, and the stone. We are not removed from the path; we become one with it.
Isaiah says, “all people” shall see this glory of the Lord in action—all people together…this setting to rights and gathering of God’s lambs. God will lead the mother sheep – and us—home on the paths we make.
But where is home? Sisters and brothers, that is the crux. Where is home for you? Are you still on the run trying to find home in this crisis or are you making a home where you are?
For many of us, we yearn for what once was. Maybe a love lost, or a place left, or a kind of family or life or blessed existence that we once knew. But what if “home” were a sense of connection or rather, re-connection, where we mend what was severed? What if “home” is a place where the displacement we feel has been overcome by something akin to love? What if home is where we remind each other not only of what has been lost, but what has been gained by our endurance and perseverance? What if home is our connection to God, the universe, and others in a way that is life-giving instead of soul-depleting? Circumstance and the vagaries of life cannot and will not touch or jeopardize this home. Home is that sense of being anchored, held, even cradled, on both waves and solid ground. Home is a path that we are a necessary part of.
What would you need to feel like that? What would you need to know that you do not know now? Whom would you need to trust?
The grass withers and the flower fades, but God’s message to us remains. To you, exiled sisters and brothers, God will come on paths of peace.
Prepare her way.
Aryn Baker, Lynsey Addario, and Francesca Trianni, “Finding Home,” Time, online. https://time.com/finding-home/