I’ve been living in exile here in Maine since 1987. I moved here when my first husband finished law school, toting a one-year-old, and I settled in a place that I had only seen in spring rains and summer fogs, wondering if I could learn how to drive in the snow. No one forced me into exile, exactly, except that I understood my role in life to be supportive wife, so I went to the place my husband had a job to do and made the best of it.
In Babylon, there were many Jewish mamas doing the same thing. The exile there was not the sort of exile we might think of at other times in their history. The invaders divided the population, and took some home with them and left their own people to rule over the others back in Jerusalem. The removed population was not enslaved so much as dislocated.
I could identify with that.
They left behind a spiritual home, the place where they understood YHWH to be in residence, the Temple in Jerusalem. In that holy place, prophets encountered the One God, experiencing visions of the hem of His Robe or the voices of His seraphim, His terrifying assisting angels. All the acts of faithful practice that mattered had to take place at the Temple. Nothing else counted.
Of course, this hadn’t always been true, because there hadn’t always been a Temple. There had been a nomadic people with an occasionally visiting God, the one who spoke directly to Abraham and appeared on his doorstep. There had been a burning bush on the mountain giving instructions to Moses, and tablets of stone supernaturally inscribed with instructions for how to live. They traveled with the people in the wilderness, and back to the Promised Land, and it wasn’t until King David brought them joyfully into his new capitol city that anyone considered building a house for them.
Now those tablets lived in the Ark of the Covenant, in the Holy of Holies, in the deepest inner sanctum of the Temple. And if you were one of the Israelites exiled to Babylon, you had to wonder, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
In exile, this little Baptist girl went to church, to a Congregational church, because I’d heard of those. I’d been to visit one in the Berkshires, right across the country road from the family friend we called “Aunt” Peggy. I remembered that they let me ring the bell all those years ago, which seemed friendly and kind. I passed through the doors at Woodfords, and although many things seemed familiar, of course many things did not. We didn’t sing the same hymns. That Pilgrim Hymnal was interesting, but what happened to the hymns I loved that spoke of MY relationship with Jesus?
How could I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
When I heard from my people in Virginia, my parents and cousins and aunts and uncles, their voices began to sound strange to me. My soft and languid vowel sounds became crisper, mostly. The long “I,” or "Ah," was the last to go, as I still asked the question, “What tahm is it?” or told a friend, “Ah’m just fahn.” Mostly, though, I assimilated. So the cards and letters from “home” would come but that place no longer felt like home.
Today we’re reading the beginning of a letter that comes under Paul’s name, although there’s some question about whether he really wrote it or not. It’s not what we would call plagiarism today. It was common at the time to use a famous person’s name in order to further that person’s cause, and scholars feel pretty sure that’s what happened here. The author wrote to encourage memory and heritage as a source of faith.
There are other things we don’t know for sure about this letter. We don’t know if Lois and Eunice were among the first Christians, or if they converted from Judaism. It’s possible Timothy was one of the first people born into the faith, an original Cradle Christian. But even if he wasn’t, even if the whole family came later to Christianity, we hear in this letter from a mentor to his beloved disciple a call to find strength in the example of those who came before, those who taught the faith through the examples of their lives.
In Babylon, the people struggled to remain faithful exactly because those people who came before seemed out of reach. They were angry with God—it’s not just the oppressing enemy army they blamed! They felt God had allowed their predicament. They railed against the oppressing enemy, using one of the most famously awful phrases in scripture about the Babylonians:
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! (Psalm 137:8-9)
We don’t like to hear that. We don’t like the reminder that our faith history includes people who thought bad thoughts or wanted mean things…or suffered cruel ends.We don’t know from this passage exactly what troubled Timothy. He may have been in danger or simply misunderstood. No doubt he felt things we have all felt in our lives, especially the kinds of questions asked by Israel in exile:
• Why is this happening to me?
• What do I do next?
• Where is God?
The letter-writer implores Timothy to rekindle the gift given, and that gift is faith in Jesus Christ, the one who lived among us and asked the same sorts of questions on his way to being crucified:
• Why can’t they see how much I love them?
• Why has my friend betrayed me?
• Where is God now that I am walking to my execution?
Rekindle the gift, guard the good treasure, these are expressions we can understand. Our spirits, when low, must be rekindled like a fire burnt down to the embers. Our faith, when fragile, must be protected like a little child we hope to see grown to full maturity.
In my early years as an exiled Virginian making my way in Maine, I lived through losses and challenges: the loss of a baby, the death of my mother, the end of a marriage. My connections to the faraway places and people seemed diminished, and I wondered why I found myself in this strange place, seemingly abandoned by God.
Still my heart remembered the stories of Jesus first learned long ago, sitting on tiny chairs at the Baptist Church in a Southern city on the edge of a tidal river. Those stories, that heritage of faith, drew me deeper into a community that celebrated the same memories, even if the accents and the hymns sounded different. In Babylon, they learned a new way to be the faithful, and Christianity proved flexible, too, as anyone who expects wine from a goblet and gets grape juice in a little glass can tell you. We’ve adapted and assimilated and learned and grown.
One year, my Uncle Haller called on Christmas Day and after listening to my report about the children, he said, “Mawthuh, you sound just lahk a Yankee.”
Maybe so, but I still loved Jesus. I still wanted to hear the stories and sing the songs and share them with others. I still wanted to gather in community.
That core experience never changes, no matter where we go. In memory of the one who asked the same questions we do, we break the bread. To experience the presence of the one who rose again, we share the cup. To rekindle the gift of God that is within us, we go to the table together. Because of that gift of grace, we are never really in exile. We can sing the Lord’s song because Christ is always with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.