Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Exile Is Over

Proper 3a.08.Epiphany
Our first lesson is about the Exile.
Two prophets, Hananiah and Jeremiah,
agree the exile is about over.
Later, they get into a spat about
just how soon it will be over.

Actually they were both wrong about the dates
– but they were both right about the main point:
the Exile was coming to an end,
and it was time for the home folks in Jerusalem
to turn on the porch light and put out the welcome mat.

The context: In 598 BCE,
Babylon conquered Judah and took
the entire leadership class of Judah,
away from their homeland into captivity.

The prophet Ezekiel gave that historical fact
a spiritual interpretation.
He had a vision in which he saw the Spirit of God
rise up from the Jerusalem Temple like a mist,
float away from Judah, and come to rest over Babylon.

It was not just the people of Judah who were gone.
God’s Spirit was gone too. It left with the exiles.
And we can see evidence of that.
During the Babylonian exile,
Judaism grew up.
It went from a tribal religion sacrificing goats
to win the favor of a war God,
to a world religion of deep spirituality
and profound social ethics.

Those things were already part of Judaism,
but during the Exile,
they took root like Sequoia seedlings
after a forest fire.

The Jews grew in exile.
They learned from another culture,
learned from another religion.
But that kind of growth can only go so far.
Eventually, it was time to go home.

Through Jeremiah, God said,
“I will fulfill my promise . . . and bring you back
to this place . . . .
I will bring you back from the place
from which I sent you into exile.”
And that’s what happened.
After 48 years, God and God’s people came home.

The Exile story may be like some of our lives.
We may have left home spiritually,
wandered in some Babylon or another,
then come back with new wisdom and insight.

In fact, the Exile really is the story
of Christianity in the past half century.
Just as Judaism had become complacent and lackadaisical
before the Exile,
Christianity in the 1950’s degenerated into
an all too respectable Churchiainity
- Beaver Cleaver’s family at prayer.

Some Christians had authentic faith back then,
but there was also a lot of cultural religion
that didn’t go very deep.
So people with a genuine spiritual hunger, in the coming decades,
often looked outside the Church
to find the Spirit.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow says, in that time,
the basic metaphor changed from the “church home”
to the “spiritual journey.”
In 1948, Thomas Merton’s autobiography smugly described
how he had found all the spiritual answers
in a cloistered Catholic monastery.
But in 1968, Merton was tramping around
India, Thailand, and Burma studying Buddhism.

Countless honest sincere God-seekers
left the Church to look for God.
Theologians from Dietrich Bonheoffer to Harvey Cox
said religion had lost its flavor.

Just like in Ezekiel’s vision,
the Spirit had left the Temple,
and some of our best people went with it.
They have been wandering in Exile
from one Babylon to another for a long time now.
But I am here to say, the Exile is coming to an end.

My family is an example.
My daughters both had their Wiccan phases.
As teenagers they told me that they were now Wiccans,
so I went to Barnes & Noble and bought $250 worth
of books on witchcraft, and said,
“If you are going to be witches,
be good ones.”

I do not know what cut short their neo-pagan paths.
It may have been my reading list was too long,
or it may have been their encounters with poison ivy
in the woods where the wiccans did whatever it is they do.
All I know is:
they and their families are back in the Episcopal Church
- one at an edgy, drum-beating creative parish;
- the other at a historic traditionalist parish.

Is that a predictable change for their stage of life? Maybe.
But other odd things are happening.
Ann Rice, queen of the vampire novelists,
is now writing the life of Jesus.
Her books are, by the way, excellent.

Stranger still, pierced, tattooed, urban 20 year olds,
who would have been Goths or perhaps Grunge in the 90’s,
are now showing up for Rite One Morning Prayer.
People who left the Church to become Tibetan Buddhists
are hearing His Holiness the Dalai Lama say
“Go home. You need Jesus”
- and they are doing it.

Others who left the Church to practice Zen
are hearing Tich Nhat Hahn say,
“Go home. You need Jesus”
- and they are doing it.

The returning exiles have learned much on their journeys.
They aren’t rejecting what they have learned.
They call themselves “Christian pluralists.”
They still chant mantras, do yoga asanas,
and work with transpersonal psychologists
and Jungian analysts.
But the Christian tradition offers something unique
their souls need if they going to
to become balanced and whole.

We have the mystical soul shaping rituals
of our ancient archetypal liturgy.
“Praying shapes believing,” we say.
And it is true.
This worship we do doesn’t always churn our passions,
but it forms our will at a deep level.

We have private spiritual practices
honed and refined over the centuries:
centering prayer, lectio divina, the rosary,
contemplation of icons, the Ignatian exercises,
and the Jesus prayer -- just to name a few.

Our blend of corporate prayer and sacraments
with individual spiritual practices
balances our need for deep community
with our need to meet God in our own unique way.

And we have our own form of karma yoga.
We call it the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
We serve the suffering and advocate for justice
not as a politically correct position
but as a spiritual practice.

Through the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy,
we are transformed ourselves,
and the world around us shares in our transformation.

That is why the Exiles are coming home.
But the question is: will there be a home waiting for them?
It cannot be the old “church home” of the 1950s.
It would not have a clue what to do with these folks.

It must be a 21st Century Temple
open to the new pluralism,
a house of prayer for all people,
a place that delights in the diversity
of human beings and their sometimes odd ideas,
a place where thoughts are free
and hearts can sing new songs.

It must be a place eager to welcome all manner of new people
to join the family, living and growing here with us,
and equally willing to be an oasis, a way station,
for pilgrims, seekers, and sojourners
who are just passing through,
but need a place to rest and drink from Jacob’s well.

So the question today, Sisters and Brothers, is to you.
Will you, the good people of Epiphany,
be that place of spiritual transformation
for the Exiles in Henderson?

Will you really proclaim out loud
by word and example
the good news of God in Christ?
Not will you go through the motions --
but will you celebrate the sacraments
in a way that gives hope to those
who so desperately need it?
Will you serve the suffering and stand up
for the despised and the outcasts?

I believe you will.
And the Diocese of Nevada believes you will.
This Diocese believes in you.
Even more, we believe in what God
is doing here among you.

We believe you will be a house of prayer for all people,
that you will embrace the exiles
not with cheap grace
but a strenuous life of soul shaping
Christian spiritual practice.

That is why the Standing Committee has promised
to underwrite the cost of doubling your worship space
in the very near future.

Do you know what this means?
We are committing thousands of dollars
to your ministry here at Epiphany
because the Exile is over.

The Exile is over. Thanks be to God.
Let us roll up our sleeves for the mission
which will be our joy and God’s glory.
Alleluia. Amen.