A sermon based on John 1:14-18 and Jeremiah 29:1, 4:14 preached on November 26th, 2017
This is high season for flying. Thanksgiving and Christmas send millions crisscrossing the skies visiting family and coming back home again. Airports are packed to the gills with anxious travelers, each of them feeling like the rigamarole of it all—checking bags, being scanned in deeply personal ways by the TSA, making their way through crowds of people, through the very narrow aisles of a aircraft and into a seat built for a size zero model—well, it’s all a bit too much. Many may wonder if traveling by plane is worth the hassle involved. And that is why no one likes airports. When we walk into an airport, we don’t intend to stay for long. We intend to go—to leave as soon as possible. They’re places designed to take us some place else. Nothing stays put in an airport. No one belongs there.
There are people who make their living in airports, though. Millions actually. You can find them if you look carefully. They’re the ones who look comfortable in a terminal. They’re the ones walking slowly down each long breezeway. And maybe, if you look even closer, you may find one who shows up to work at the airport wearing a clergy collar. Airport chaplains are still a thing. We may not notice them. These days, they can hardly be found inside airport chapels. Who goes to an airport chapel anyway? Now, they’re out and about, in the corridors and terminals, they’re riding up and down escalators, searching for travelers who look like they could use some help or encouragement.
People who go through the airport are very vulnerable, and probably at 35,000 feet, you might be the loneliest person alive. As flight delays worsen, security lines bulge, and nerves fray, chaplains at airports across the country cruise up and down concourses, casting a trained eye on the swirl of humanity in search of anybody who appears in need. The attention of a good airport chaplain may be the only personal, comforting thing a traveler comes across. Singer-songwriter, Neko Case has a line in one of her songs where she says that she thinks Heaven will smell like the airport. She may be onto something. What if God loves airports?
God has a history of hanging out in places that are no places at all. How many times in scripture do we read about people encountering God in the wilderness, for example? God has a tendency to settle down in middle spaces, settings where no one would ever think to call home.
The Reverend Mote, an Episcopal member of the interfaith chaplains’ department at Atlanta International Airport—Mote, and interesting name for an airport chaplain—was still in training when, on a hunch, she decided to check the departures board for lengthy delays. She noticed one and started heading to that gate where she met a traveler who just realized she would miss her aunt’s funeral. “I’m on the edge of panic,” the woman told her.
Chaplain Mote sat with her. Listening. Trying her best to bridge the gap over this woman’s troubled waters.
Most of the time, the prophet Jeremiah was a lousy chaplain. Here in chapter 29, he writes a letter to his people Israel. It’s full of God’s words for them. The Israelites are in exile in Babylon, having been recently kicked out of their Promised Land by an invading army. They were beside themselves. They believed that God had abandoned them, left them for dead in a nowhere place.
So, here they are in Babylon, complaining about their displacement, holding their breath, waiting for the day, the hour, the minute when they can go back home.
Any moment now,
God’s gonna rescue us from this in-between place, this nowhere land, and then we can get back to living again.
There was a preacher named Hananiah who was a false prophet, a good news preacher
—one we might call these days, a Prosperity Gospel preacher—who spoke up and lied to the exiles, telling the Israelites,
You won’t be here for long! Don’t unpack your suitcases. God’s going to take care of us, and before you know it, you all will be back home again.
It didn’t work out that way. God’s message to His people is much harder to swallow.
You’ll be in Babylon for a long time. So, you best unpack your bags, and find a way to call this place ‘home.’
Sometimes, the truth stings. But it must be spoken, anyway. So, the prophet goes on:
Quit sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves, you people of God! You will be in Babylon for a long time. You had better make the best of it. Don’t just survive, thrive.
Put down roots, build houses, build businesses in this place, plant gardens, have families. No, you’re not at home, but God has placed you here. That must mean He has something. God wants you to do life well right where you are, so be faithful in this strange city. Settle down here. Establish roots. Dig in.
See, the only opportunity any of us have to live by faith is in the circumstances we are experiencing right now, right here—in this house you live in, in this family you find yourself in, and in this job you’ve been given to do.
The Israelites’ old life is dead. Now it’s their task to find new life in Babylon. This is God shouting into their ear,
Arrive, Israel, arrive! Show up in this place. Don’t just exist, do not simply graze this land. Dig in.
And these same words are for us, too: Don’t just endure in this life, flourish! Grow where you’re planted. God expects much from His people, no matter where we find ourselves. Or, as Jesus put it in His Sermon on the Mount,
Become salt and light in and for the world…wherever in the world you are.
Wherever we find ourselves, God wants His people to make the inward journey from refugee to resident, from victims to visionaries. From seeing ourselves as the defeated to living as the difference-makers. This is God’s idea of faithful living.
These days, we the church and all of its people, are experiencing a peculiar kind of exile. Many of us are home—some of us have never left home. But the neighborhood has changed, hasn’t it? A few decades ago, churches could exist right where their building sat, and people from all over would come to us. Those days are gone. But that isn’t the problem. The problem is that we’re still waiting for people to come to our door. We keep wondering what’s taking them so long to notice we’re here. Guess what? They either no longer know or no longer care that we’re here.
Sometimes exile happens when the world around us changes. Sometimes, we experience dislocation or displacement even though we never left home! This is a change we didn’t choose, but it has happened. This is exile. We’re home, but it feels different. And just like the Israelites, we can complain all we want. We can pine for our yesteryears when all was good and right and plentiful. But that’s not where God has placed us. So, no longer can we ask questions like “How do we get more folks in our doors?” or “What do we have to do to make church important for people again?”
God wants us to have a new conversation—to change the way we talk. The church’s life isn’t over, not is it slowly slipping away. It’s moving. This is hard news for we the church to hear, just as Jeremiah’s words were hard for the ancient Israelites. Everything is displaced. God is not calling us back to where we once were. God is inviting us to show up in the place where we now find ourselves. To invest ourselves and our ministry in this new context, to sing a new song in this strange land. This is not something we’ve chosen, but we can no longer resist the change we see. Denying it is futile. Instead, we must find a way to live faithfully in this new landscape God has us in. The new and faithful question for us is: Now that God has us here, in this place, among this people, how do we show up and become a faithful people in it? How do we become salt and light in and for the world…wherever in the world we are?
And we would do well not to come up with an answer to those questions all by ourselves, but to look to the One who is the Answer to all of our questions.
We are a week away from Advent, the season when we ready ourselves—try our best to make a place for—the arrival of another both within us and among us. This is the season where every heart is invited to prepare Him room, because in the fullness of time, God became one of us in Christ Jesus. As the first words from John’s gospel for the morning declares,
The Word became flesh and made His home among us.
In other words, God moved into our neighborhood. Now, He lives among His people. He’s out and about, strolling the corridors and breezeways, the sidewalks and front porches, searching for travelers who look like they could use some help or encouragement. We have a God who is out and about. Who in Christ now called this place Home. Who has arrived, who has never departed, and promises to arrive again. Who, throughout history, has met us right where we are, and says to us,
You are never in the wrong place to serve God.
All praise to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!