In Divinity School, my Old Testament professor argued that the Hebrew Bible hinges on two events.
Most church-goers can name the first event: the Exodus. It is the account of the prophet Moses leading the Hebrew people out from under the thumb of the despot Pharaoh. It is the story of an enslaved people escaping oppressive masters with the help and guidance of God.
The first third of the Bible is largely concerned with events surrounding the Exodus and what happens to these captives once they are freed from Egypt, as they search for, fight for and settle a homeland.
The Exodus is the first hinge in the Bible. A good chunk of the rest of the Old Testament is devoted to reflections on a second historical event: the Exile.
The Exile is the Exodus in reverse.
In 597 BCE, the Babylonian army conquered Jerusalem. Over a period of years, many of the residents of the city and the surrounding lands were taken into captivity. They were carried off to Babylon. Back to square one. They were slaves again.
The Exile caused a crisis of faith for the Hebrew people. Their homes had been looted and destroyed. They were separated from family and friends. Their culture was in tatters. Their whole society — their rituals and customs and faith — was in danger of being snuffed out.
They asked: Where are you, God? Are we being punished? Is our identity as a people forfeit? Are we condemned to being, slowly but surely, whitewashed by Babylonian society? How did this happen? How did we go from being free, having a homeland, a thriving culture and an active faith, to being exiles?
Contemporary Christians are identifying more and more with the Exile.
It is no longer a radical thing to suggest that the United States is a post-Christian nation. Some voices declare that the Church is on its deathbed, wheezing its last, piteous, irrelevant breaths before making a quiet exit from the world stage.
My guess is that those who predict the imminent demise of the Christian religion are overreaching. They forget that the history of our faith is a long cycle of Exiles and Exoduses. Still, they are right about something very, very important: the rules of the game have changed.
Whatever the Church will be in the coming years, it is facing a reality that most of us have never faced before. We are all learning, as Psalm 137 (an exilic psalm) puts it, what it means to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.”
As we learn this new way of singing, your clergy intend to engage the larger cultural conversation. Last week, in a very helpful way, Charlene Han Powell asked us to contemplate what it means to be “spiritual” AND “religious.” This coming week, we will continue our exploration of the current context by turning to one of the great figures of the Exile –Nehemiah.
Never heard of him? That’s ok. He is a fascinating fellow. We are going to read a bit of his story, and we are going to ask old Nehemiah to answer a question that humankind has posed again and again, from the dawn of time:
Do we need religion?
See you in worship,