Christ Centered Resources

Thanksgiving in Babylon

Rev. Ed Searcy

Luke 17:11-19, Jeremiah 29:4-7, Jeremiah 29:1-1
University Hill United Church : Sun, October 11, 1998
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 here, 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 in Jerusalem 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. Rage. Vengeance. 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." Instead it's: "Settle in for the long haul. Your generation will not see Jerusalem again. Get used to it. Babylon is going to be home. Get building. Start planting. Raise children." 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 material wealth and personal comfort is so foreign to the Gospel of costly love 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 our lives. I thought of today ... of Thanksgiving. 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 of scripture 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. Strangely, it is in the absence of the Temple that Israel learns to give thanks to God with a fresh voice and a renewed heart. Mysteriously, it is in Babylon that the exiles find home 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 works through such a surprisingly grateful people.