A few weeks ago, when Fay and I traveled to Portland for my class's 70th birthday party, I made it a point to go past my “growing up” house on Oatfield Road. I almost didn't recognize it. There was a huge hedge across the front, and what had been our front porch had been torn out and a large deck built in its place. The front windows had been changed and the place painted a different color. It was the same building, but not the same house. I guess Thomas Wolfe was right.
"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."
This is the situation faced by the exiled Judeans. The destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon represents a tremendous shock to the Jewish people. It may be hard to imagine today what it must have meant back then, because we really have no basis of comparison.
In those days normative Judaism meant living with the constant presence of God, which was always accessible at the Temple. Miracles occurred there daily and could be witnessed by anyone. For example, whichever way the wind was blowing, the smoke of the sacrifices always went straight to heaven. Feeling spiritual today is nothing compared what it was like to feel spiritual in the Temple. With such intense spirituality it was clear that God was with the Jewish people.
The same thing could be said for the land. One miracle that the land exhibited was that every six years there was a bumper crop so that the Jews could take the seventh year -- the sabbatical year -- off from labor. It was amazing.
Now all of that is gone. The land, the Temple, God's presence. (Remember, the Jews of the time saw God as geocentric, belonging to, and present in a specific place—the temple. Is it any wonder they lamented in Psalm 137:
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our harps
upon the poplars.
3 For there our captors made us sing
and our tormentors made us entertain,
saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4 How shall we sing the song of the Lord
in a foreign land?
They were strangers in a strange land, far from home. Their only hope was that somehow God, from whom they had turned, would swiftly rescue them and return them home. And so they spent their time hoping and wishing, but doing nothing about planning their future.
As I mentioned several weeks ago, Fay and I met with our financial planner to look at and determine which of several investment strategies would best. meet our short and long term goals. One reason for this is, of course, that at 70, long term goals aren't as long term as they were when I was 30.
The point is, we need to plan and prepare for the future, even though we aren't always sure of what it will hold. But just has they had abandoned God and ended up in exile, they now abandoned all hope for the future. They were just going to sit in Babylon and waste away until someone else, presumably God, returned them home.
In Jerusalem, some 800 miles away, God came to Jeremiah and told him what was (or perhaps more accurately, wasn't) happening in Babylon. Apparently the exiles, the former leaders, movers, and shakers of Jerusalem still didn't get it. They still didn't understand they were being punished. And so, directed by God, Jeremiah writes them:
4 This is the Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God, to all the exiles I’ve taken from Jerusalem to Babylon:
You're not coming home; at least not for a long time. Get used to it. Put on your big boy pants and get to work.
5 “Build houses and make yourselves at home.
“Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country.
6 “Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away.
7 “Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare.
“Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”
In other words: “For the next 70 years, this is your home, whether or not you think so, whether or not you want it to be. That's the reality, So quit your whining and get on about the business of living. Build houses, plant fields and vineyards, start businesses, become active in the community, be a part of your
As Steve Goodier reminds us:
Both the hummingbird and the vulture fly over our nation's deserts. All vultures see is rotting meat, because that is what they look for. They thrive on that diet. But hummingbirds ignore the smelly flesh of dead animals. Instead, they look for the colorful blossoms of desert plants. The vultures live on what was. They live on the past. They fill themselves with what is dead and gone. But hummingbirds live on what is. They seek new life. They fill themselves with freshness and life. Each bird finds what it is looking for. We all do.
A colleague of mine was appointed to church that was dying. He was told that his job was to prepare the congregation for their closing and disbandment. After all, the few members left were, by their own description, old, tired, and weak. Undeterred by what he heard, my colleague saw this as an opportunity. He went in not with the goal of closing, but with the goal of growth and rebirth. He became active in the community, convinced a group of youth to form a praise band, restarted the Sunday School, began a school backpack program, opened a thrift store and food bank. Soon the congregation began to grow. Within a few years the major problem of that church was not keeping the doors open, but finding room for everyone and every ministry. In short, where the conference expected a vulture, they found a hummingbird.
The ten lepers in today's gospel were, for all intents, vultures. Outcasts from society, they existed of the scraps of food and rags of clothing those who felt pity would leave for them. Unclean, they were not allowed to come close to the rest of society. But then they saw Jesus, and were instantly transformed into hummingbirds. For the first time in their lives they saw not the dead body of their disease, but a beautiful bloom; reached out; and were healed.
Jeremiah is reminding the Jews that they are to make the best of life in Babylon. Instead of looking to the carrion of the past, they are to look to the colorful plants of the future. They are to seek out the nectar of their new home and make it a land of milk and honey. We too, are called to make the best of where we are; to no longer see the world as hopeless, but to look joyfully to the future and set about bringing hope to the land and the world.
Vulture or Hummingbird? It's your choice. AMEN