What do 65.3 million people in the world have in common? They are refugees – they are homeless – having fled war and or persecution. They are living in exile. On average – they remain uprooted for 17 years. On average!
Human history is rife with people who have had to be on the move – not always from the tragedy of war and persecution, but uprooted, exiled to some degree.
In British Columbia this past summer, many people had a taste of exile – forced to flee their homes as unpredictable wild fires tore through huge swaths of land. Many are still waiting and working for basic services to be restored to their homes. Not to downplay the suffering of any of these people, but the difference was they found welcome and support when they had to arrive with only what they could carry in the surrounding communities.
There are other, more hidden kinds of exile. The teenager shunned by his friends, the partner who has gone through a divorce, the aging widow whose life is now experienced in a retirement centre – away from family and friends. So many have experienced some form of exile. Where have you experience exile – in your life, or where have you noticed it in the lives of those around you?
In such times of exile, where did you find hope? Where have you been able to bring hope; or where might you be able to bring hope?
The poetry of (2nd) Isaiah speaking to those in exile, paints a picture of extraordinary beauty and a wonderful delivery. He anticipates God coming to take home the people of Israel, out of exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem their beloved city. Not just filling the potholes, but every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; thus revealing the glory of the Lord.
Was Isaiah giving the people false hope? Even with this marvellous vision of intervention and invitation from God, only a small group of exiled people chose to return to Jerusalem, to the homeland of their ancestors. Last week we `read ahead’ and find that they are quite disheartened by what they discover – the temple and much of the city destroyed.
Sometimes it is very difficult to make a fresh start, even when we want to. Even if we are unhappy with our circumstances, why is it so difficult for so many of us to get up and leave, even if a new life, location, community will bring a fresh start?
The fear of the unknown? Some old message in our head that tells us we just don’t have what it takes, or that we are not worthy of something better? What if we try and fail? Listening to CBC Tapestry on the way home from Sicamous on Thursday, a Benedictine monk said that worst thing that can happen to us, that can stop us from living fully, is the illusion that we must be perfect; we must do things perfectly. Perfection is not going to happen, he said, so just get on with it.
Some folks think that if they could just see the path ahead, they would be willing to choose it. I doubt it. When I decided to train for ministry, knowing that it would take me seven years before ordination, was a huge challenge. At nineteen years old, it felt like a life sentence. Good thing I didn’t know it would actually take me ten years, that I would have two children by then, would be living in a contentious, often emotionally painful relationship, and that my sense of call would be severely challenged in my second last year, and that a year after ordination the church would face it’s biggest controversy since union in 1925. I might have decided to be a dishwasher instead.
Enough about that – let’s go to the gospel. How does John invite people to make a fresh start? By the way, I was looking for a nice picture of John the Baptist for the bulletin, and unfortunately the best one I found said, “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” Good ol’ John – such words of encouragement. But really… that part comes later when he’s talking to the Pharisees whom he’s pretty sure would be happy to shut him down. For unlike them, he is not suggesting that people make temple sacrifices and make sure they are following all 619 religious laws, or feel like failures forever.
His fresh start was a lot simpler than that. Admit your failures and your faults, step into the river and let these cleansing waters wash it all away. I read a beautiful one-liner this week:
Sometimes you need to let go of things – simply because they are too heavy to carry around. Yes. Let it go – let the river of life and love wash it away.
Back to John and Isaiah and the message of clearing the path for God. We do that best by clearing the path for others in order that they may experience compassion and justice. Jim and I just exchanged early Christmas presents – both in light of the suffering of the millions of people in exile.
Jim gave a donation to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission of Refugees and I gave to MSF (Doctors without Borders).
It might help by reminding ourselves of those who have helped clear a path for us. E.g. In those many years of ministry training – we received a yearly gift from Cordova Bay United Church – a box of goodies and a cheque. One year, when my son Aaron was about 4 years old, the box included `Sad-Eyed Dog’ a basset hound stuffy that is still a treasure.
We’d also get a phone call from my father-in-law from Ft. Nelson “Meet the bus at 10:00 PM tonight.” There would be a box full of frozen moose meat – a way to help us stretch the meager grocery budget.
Who has helped clear a path for you? Who has made the road a little easier for you to travel? I invite you to name them now…
This week I rewrote the words to the beautiful Advent hymn – `O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’ The original, fittingly echoes Isaiah 40, our reading for this morning. But in today’s world, with 65.3 million people in exile, not including the ones who are living in the alleyways, under the bridges, in their cars, in the tent cities and parks of nearly every small to large city in our country, not including the women and children seeking shelter in designated safe houses, people in prison,…, not including those in hospital or rehab, those couch surfing etc., I wanted to sing this song to a wider group of people and so here it is… please sing it with me.
VU 1 O Come Emmanuel (Wherever you may dwell)
O come, O come, Emmanuel
Refresh us at your life-giving well.
All people long to feel your grace,
Pour out your Spirit on every place.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,
shall come to thee wherever you may dwell.
O come to us, our Everlasting Home,
Your people lost and broken, roam,
And seek a place of welcome and peace,
From war and violence, may they know release.
O come Beloved, hear your peoples’ plea –
The wounded soul, the homeless refugee.
May `Welcome’ be our own heart’s call,
‘Till there be room and justice for us all.
(words by Juanita L. Austin – Nov. 29 2017) .