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Previous Sermons by Rev Dr Brian Brown

FROM EXILE TO NEW LIFE IN CHRIST

Sunday 1st January 2023  Boolaroo Uniting Church - Jeremiah 31:7-14

 

It may seem like an unusual choice of topic for New Year’s Day, but I have decided to focus my thoughts on the theme of Exile, for three reasons. Firstly, this theme confronts us in the lections of the Christmas season, in the words of the prophet of the Exile, and the Story of the flight of the Holy family to Egypt.. The second reason for choosing exile as our theme is that the most transformative part of my own spiritual journey happened in the seven years between the breakdown of my first marriage in 1993 and my commencement as minister at the Hamilton Broadmeadow Congregation in the year 2000. This was my time of exile, and by sharing this part of my testimony I hope to give you a glimpse of who I am, as we start to get to know one another. Finally, as it is my conviction that most people have at least one experience in their lives that is akin to exile, we can, by reflecting on the biblical perspective of the process, be helped to better understand the way through the turmoil to new life and joy in our Christian journey.  

 

The biblical Exile of 582 BC saw large numbers of Israelites captured by the Babylonian military and taken to a foreign land. Apart from the grinding dislocation from family and community, the people were also unceremoniously wrenched from two primary elements of meaning and structure. One was the Temple in Jerusalem, which was held to contain the very presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant. The other was the King, who would protect them, tax them, conscript them and generally tell them what to do.  The things we accept to feel safe and secure! In the face of all this loss the people lament “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” What was worse, their prophets interpreted this hiatus as an act of God’s judgment on them, a kind of karmic consequence for the bad behaviour of Israel and Judah for their straying from God’s ways of love and justice.

 

When a minister of a congregation experiences marital separation, the almost inevitable consequence is the end of that placement, along with the loss of many friends. This, along with living separately from one’s family creates a sense of deep grief. The losses are multiple and complex, and each one contributes to the sense of being cut off from everything which formerly provided a sense of security. When guilt and shame are added to that toxic mix, life truly becomes a struggle for survival in all sorts of ways. (Included in this was the experience of having to queue up at Centrelink for the first time, and ask for unemployment benefits.) Loneliness is one of the few constant companions.

 

I offer this as one personal example of how one might experience exile. There are all sorts of reasons why exile can come about. Sometimes one is cut off from crucial life and community support through no fault of one’s own. This happened to a lot of people during COVID. Natural disasters such as are being commonly experienced in the floods of Northern NSW and Pakistan for example, can leave people suddenly and cruelly in the lurch. Such undeserved suffering was in the mind of Rabbi Kushner when he wrote the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. Then there are those circumstances which a person can bring upon themselves, when we fear that our suffering is a judgement of God.

 

In the end though, the way back is a well-worn path. Jeremiah describes it as a great restorative journey home, as the God who scattered Israel “…will gather him and keep him as a shepherd of a flock”.

 

My central assertion, my crucial point in today’s message is that, no matter how we got into exile, in the grace of God there is a way back which can leave us changed for the better in all sorts of ways.  This “way back” consists, in my understanding of three main elements- seemingly paradoxical, yet connected:

 

1. Getting on with it.

There is a lovely story from Novocastrian Trevor Dickenson, author of  “The Book of Newcastle”. He says “I was a whinging Pom… By 2009 when I had made the first drawings in this book, I had already lived in Newcastle for seven years, but still felt disconnected. I had arrived in 2002 from London with my wife Jo and two children. Through chance and convenience we settled in the same Waratah house that Jo’s father grew up in. I worked from home designing textiles and graphics for UK and Sydney fashion companies, mainly communicating by email. I felt like my life was spent in front of a screen, emailing my work down a black hole and getting little response. I missed England and missed my extended English family. I’m sure I came across as the classic whingeing Pom, when in reality I was depressed. I was grieving for my old life while trying to make a new life. I also knew that going back would solve nothing. I reached the point where I had to sort myself out and work harder on my mental health. The way to do that was to connect with Newcastle.” Hence the book of his amazing sketches.

 

The first reaction to the awful experience of exile is often lament. It’s not wrong, in fact, it is both healthy and biblical. So the grieving Israelites mourn with the refrain of the psalmist “By the rivers of Babylon we lay down. There we wept as we remembered Zion” But the lament must eventually cease, lest it become an unending alienating whinge. So the Prophet Jeremiah says God’s word to them “I have sent you into exile. Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…(29:5-14)” In other words, when you have had a good cry, GET ON WITH IT. Accept where you are. The fact is that the God you thought you left behind in the Temple of Jerusalem is right there with you.

 

Coming to terms with one’s sense of guilt and shame is important, but you cannot move forward and carry it as a dead weight, or wallow in it for too long. If we truly believe that we are redeemed in the saving love of Christ, that we are a forgiven people, we need to get to the point of forgiving ourselves, and get on with it. We must live where we are now planted, even if the soil that sustains us is not exactly to our liking. My “getting on with it” involved many things, including three jobs which I would never have considered in normal times, yet they were part of my salvation.

 

2. Thinking about it

Both surviving exile and being enriched in the experience does not just happen by itself, or by hoping for the best. I was playing a round of golf at Merewether recently, and all four of us were struggling.  Someone said something about hoping for better on the next hole, when one wise fellow quoted Aristotle to us:  “It will not happen if you just expect it.  You have to inspect it!” This reminded me of the wisdom of two other great minds from far different eras. Socrates was reputed to say at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living”, and Einstein, who gave us this definition of insanity, as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”.

 

There is a work of reflection and introspection that needs to be done when one is in exile, in order to come out of the experience in a different place from where we went in.  The question we need to ask of ourselves is-“What needs to change in my own heart and mind?”

 

I know that many people have a visceral resistance to introspection, which they will quickly proclaim to be “navel-gazing”.  The bottom line is that in any experience of grief and loss, we need to do the emotional work, which for men in particular may be one of the new skills for living in the changed circumstances.

 

I was faced with such a challenge when working with men at the Steelworks leading up to the 1999 closure. We foresaw the huge loss that was coming for so many who had worked there all their lives, many with non-transferable skills. How were they supposed to cope? I mentioned an idea I had to one of the workers, about gathering groups of men to talk about what was happening to them. His response was swift- “We fellows do not sit around talking like hens”. In fact, this is not true. There is actually no great difficulty getting men to share concerns and deep feelings when there is a level of trust in the room. The hardest thing is to actually get them into the room in the first place! What we worked towards in those groups was helping one another find our depth. (I did not call it spirituality for obvious reasons). These men, typically, were used to battling their way out of their difficulties, but sometimes that is not possible. Newer, deeper emotional resources need to be mined get a different result, and we are all capable of it, if we can just overcome our fear of others seeing what is going on the inside. (This is not  necessarily just an issue for one gender)

 

3. Seeing the Grace in it all (God’s saving love)

 The final question is, “Where is God in all of this?” The prophets understood that banishment into exile was both a punishment of a disobedient people, and also a process by which they might be redeemed and restored. Thus understood, the experience of exile, with all its crushing blows, is also an experience of grace. When I look back on the gracious way that this process unfolded for me, I can hardly believe it. I was pretty much on my own. It was as if the church I love was saying to me “Go and bleed somewhere else, and after that let’s see what happens”. The first job I got was driving taxis in Wollongong for three nights a week, earning $5 an hour for a 12 hour shift. Talk about alien territory! Most of the other drivers were Turkish, and I did not really know what I was doing, and yet I survived, partly due to a few other drivers, (guarding angels if you like- one a Pom and the other a Turk) who looked out for me. Then, irony of ironies, I scored a job as an adolescent and family counsellor with Campbelltown Care Force, the community wing of the Sydney Anglican Church. Again, I found myself in alien territory (Though a qualified and trained counsellor, I had never done clinically-based counselling) and again, the forces of grace were at hand to help me through as I reached out to people whose lives, like mine, were in states of chaos. And, then, as if God had not yet had enough fun, I landed the job of full time chaplain at the Newcastle steelworks, a working environment which, for one whose blood pressure rises even at the thought of going into Bunnings or IKEA,  was both alien to my experience and to my very nature. And yet those five years ended up being the most fulfilling and life-changing of all.  Grace had become an undeniable reality in the most unexpected environment of all.

 

 And so my time of exile, which started with a crash in 1993, came to an end early in the year 2000. As the closure of the Steelworks was happening, I was approached by Hamilton Broadmeadow UC about taking up the ministry placement there.  I was not ready to leave just then, but they came back and asked again when the time was ripe. Just before Easter 2000, seven years to the week since I left my earlier congregation, I was inducted in to the Ministry of Hamilton Broadmeadow, a ministry which was to run for eleven years, where I was restored into my church community, embraced, and given the opportunity to serve in a new way. “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd doth his flock” (Jeremiah 31:10b.)

 

To sum up; I am saying three things about the creative experience of exile:

1. Accepting where we are, and then getting on with it

 

2. Learning new ways of living in the strange place in which we find ourselves, especially by reflecting on the experience and allowing ourselves to changed on the inside.

 

3. Holding to the faith that understands God’s Grace as the crucial element in bringing us back home, changed, transformed, restored to the community of Christ, ready to serve anew. “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.” (Jeremiah 31:13).                    New life in Christ has begun.

 

Brian Brown

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