Thanksgiving in Babylon
| Jeremiah 29:1-1
|Sun, October 11, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|When we think of Thanksgiving
we picture mythical images of prairie harvests ...
churches overflowing with sheaves of wheat,
cornucopias bursting with pumpkins and squash
of every size and shape,
not a seat left in a pew
and everyone in their spit and polish Sunday best.
even in a city of two million strangers
we hold on to this formative memory of Thanksgiving.
But imagine a different Thanksgiving.
Imagine Thanksgiving in Babylon.
The little community of Israelites
who had survived the long march
from devastated Jerusalem
to the Big Apple, Babylon,
still keep the old festivals,
still celebrate the harvest.
They mark Thanksgiving far from home.
Except that their hearts just aren't in it.
Yes, there is plenty of produce
to place on the altar.
Babylon is rich in consumer goods.
It is just that no one feels all that grateful to God.
They keep reliving the nightmare
over and over again ...
the horror of the pitched battles
in every neighbourhood of the city ...
the sight of bodies piled up in open graves ...
the desecration of the Holy of Holies,
the Temple a burnt-out shell.
Until now Thanksgiving had always taken place
at the Temple.
All of the Thanksgiving hymns
had been written for the Temple.
All of the rituals
had been developed for the Temple.
And all of the words
had given thanks to God
for preserving Zion,
for protecting the Temple.
Now, in Babylon,
gratitude is in short supply.
Anger is more in favour.
These are the emotions
that the community voices.
It is in Babylon that they compose Psalm 137:
"By the rivers of Babylon -
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion ...
How could we sing the Lord's song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither ...
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!"
These exiles are ripe for the taking
by charismatic preachers and talk-show hosts
who play on their rage
and encourage their hatred of all things Babylonian.
And who can blame them?
No wonder they flock to hear self-proclaimed prophets
who claim to have it on good authority
that it won't be long until they can return home
to precious Zion
and rebuild Jerusalem to its former glory.
They aren't the only ones who long for yesteryear.
We, too, are tempted to pine away for the 'good old days'
when Zion was thriving with activity ...
the churches full,
the ten commandments
and 'the golden rule' taken as a cultural given,
our world ordered and predictable and stable.
We, too, are ripe for the taking
by charismatic preachers and talk-show hosts
who play on our fear
and encourage our disdain for all things foreign.
Imagine, then, the shock
that ripples through the exiles in Babylon
when Jeremiah's letter is read aloud:
"Thus says the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel,
to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile
from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them;
plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters ..."
It is not what they are expecting ...
Not what they have been hoping and praying for.
Jeremiah doesn't say:
"Hurry home ... we'll leave the light on."
"Settle in for the long haul.
Your generation will not see Jerusalem again.
Get used to it.
Babylon is going to be home.
There is more.
Jeremiah has another shock in store:
"But seek the welfare of the city
where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the Lord on its behalf,
for in its welfare
you will find your welfare."
Seek the 'welfare' -
in Hebrew 'the shalom' -
of the city.
Seek the peace and well-being
of Babylon ...
Babylon which is the Evil Empire ...
Babylon which has just devastated the Holy City ...
Babylon which holds Israel captive.
Imagine the state of shock on the faces of those
who hear Jeremiah's words of Wisdom.
It's not hard to do.
On Thursday I leave for two weeks in Atlanta
to begin studies in the intersection of
'Gospel and Culture'.
Like the exiles in Babylon
we Christians in North America
are increasingly marginalized,
even at times ostracized.
Our exile leads us to separate ourselves
from an alien culture ...
a culture whose 'gospel' of
and personal comfort
is so foreign to the Gospel of
that lies at the heart of our life together.
Jeremiah writes to us
when he says:
"Don't make any plans for an early return
to the 'good old days'.
Settle down in Babylon.
Put the 'home sweet home' signs on the wall.
Seek the shalom of your Babylonian neighbours."
In other words,
"Hear the call of God
to embody the gospel in the midst of the culture ...
even Babylonian culture."
Listening to Jeremiah I thought of people I know ...
I thought of Terry, such a valued member
of the ethics committees
at Children's and BC Women's hospitals ...
seeking the shalom of women and children,
of nurses and doctors
faced with such complex and painful moral dilemmas.
I thought of Doug whose passion for the faith
and for the shalom of the city
has transformed the 'Religion' section of the newspaper
from a joke
into a column that is discussed and debated
around the water cooler
as often as it is in church.
I thought of women and men
who quietly and courageously
seek the shalom
of corporate Babylon ...
the work place which
is such a foreign culture
for so many exiles from the Holy City.
I thought of so many here
who describe their own families
as foreign turf ...
and yet who continue to seek the shalom,
to work and pray for the well-being,
of spouses and parents and children
who cannot comprehend
how the transcendant mystery of God
could so captivate, nourish and transform
I thought of today ...
And I remembered that it is in exile
that Israel discovers new ways to worship God.
With the Temple in ruins
worship can no longer be located in a place.
Instead it becomes located in a people
and in a text.
It is in the exile that Israel begins to 'synagogue'
which means 'to gather'
from which we derive 'congregation'
as in 'University Hill Congregation'.
It is there, too, that the reading and interpreting
not the offering of sacrifices,
becomes the central drama in the worship life
of Jews and of Christians.
We owe the structure of our common life
to the survival habits
of the ancient exiles in Babylon.
it is in the absence of the Temple
that Israel learns to give thanks to God
with a fresh voice
and a renewed heart.
it is in Babylon
that the exiles
away from home.
And look at us gathered here.
It is in the aftermath of selling our 'Temple'
on University Boulevard
and becoming a leaseholding tenant
and risking life as a salty, yeasty people
on a campus of 40,000
that we re-discover how to give thanks to God.
Here worship is as Martin Luther says it is intended to be.
"Worship", says Luther,
"is always the tenth leper turning back". (Luke 17:11-19)
That is who we are:
far from home ...
living in a strange world ...
in need of a healing touch ...
when to our abiding astonishment,
Christ comes near
and we are cleansed ... transformed ... reborn.
"Thank God" is all we can say
with our lips
and with our lives.
Our Babylonian neighbours
may yet rejoice
that the shalom of God
such a surprisingly grateful people.