To Ministers Exiled From Their Land
-Rev Melissa Fain-
4 The Lord’s word came to me:
5 “Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
before you were born I set you apart;
I made you a prophet to the nations.”
6 “Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak
because I’m only a child.”
7 The Lord responded,
“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’
Where I send you, you must go;
what I tell you, you must say.
8 Don’t be afraid of them,
because I’m with you to rescue you,”
declares the Lord.
9 Then the Lord stretched out his hand,
touched my mouth, and said to me,
“I’m putting my words in your mouth.
10 This very day I appoint you over nations and empires,
to dig up and pull down,
to destroy and demolish,
to build and plant.”
Jeremiah 1: 4-10 CEB
The scripture is beautiful, isn't it? I mean, how great would it feel to know you were set apart before you were even born?! Just sit back, pull those legs up and relax! You're set!
Those words were shared before it happened. What was "it"? The Babylonian exile. The Southern Kingdom was gathered up, taken to Babylon, and forced to remain- apart from their temple.
If you don't see how devastating that is, you don't understand the mindset of the people it happened to. The Ancient Near East believed gods lived on their land. Literally. They believed, if you wanted to visit the God of Abraham you had to travel to Jerusalem. For example, when Naaman, a General of Aram, was cured from leporsy by rinsing seven times in the Jordan, he dedicated himself to the God of Abraham. He didn't want to move, so he filled carts with dirt, so he could properly worship God on their land.
Those exiled didn't have carts of dirt. They had nothing, and it came through in Psalm 137.
Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
Jeremiah's story is the exile's story. He was on the path to greatness. He was going to be a Priest, and a Prophet. What did that get him? At first, punishment. He was beaten and confined by fellow Priests for his call as a Prophet. Later, exile.
Mental devastation. We really can't comprehend it today.
Modern culture is a wandering people. We don't settle. We move across state lines, sometimes at a moments notice. In a lot of ways it doesn't feel like a big deal. Only it was. These were a people who had generations in one place. It was a connection to the land and community we just can't comprehend. Then, to believe being exiled also meant being disconnected from God? You might as well attempt to transplant an adult oak for the damage it did to the Judeans. Roots were irreparably severed.
Moving the Judeans to a foreign soil was a Babylonian play. When they conquered land, they often took the elite from that land and put them in Babylon. It kept the powerful close, while making sure no one was left who could do anything back home. Jeremiah was part of that exile.
Ministry can just be horrible! (Says the minister, but follow me here.)
Many of us, as clergy, don't have healthy boundaries, so we get worn out too quickly. When a minister does have healthy boundaries it's viewed as suspect. Then, a minister will spend his or her energy clarifying or defining a weekly schedule instead of doing the work at hand. As more and more congregations struggle with their numbers, more and more churches take on toxic attributes. The person at greatest risk of that toxicity are ministers.
It's underpaid, overworked, and statistically dangerous to clergy's psyche.
If anyone understood the reality of being called to a broken system, it was Jeremiah.
The call didn't become null and void because the story took a dark turn. Maybe we want to believe that calls are all sunshine and lolly pops. It's not. No one should want to be called. It's not fun. It's not glamorous. It can just be horrible!
That makes the words of the Lord even more important. "You are set apart. You will be sent. You will be rescued. You will speak my Word."
Think of that!
Jeremiah's beaten but God's words are still true.
Jeremiah's cannot be a Priest without the Temple, but God's words are still true.
Jeremiah is with a people who lost everything, but God's words are still true.
It makes what Jeremiah said to the Judeans in exile all the more important. "The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah." (Jeremiah: 31:27-34 CEB) When everything appears lost, when everything is clearly broken, there is Jeremiah- set apart, speaking love, doing what God always intended him to do.
As more and more ministers find themselves exiled in the wilderness, we need to know- the call hasn't changed its purpose, just location. Consider Jeremiah. We're beaten, but not destroyed. We're exiled, but not lost. We're away from the Temple we love, but not God and God's people. Most importantly, we are here for a reason. The work continues in a foreign land.