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Hearing God's Word in the Covid Exile | Alison Falby | July 12, 2020

Words matter. And some words matter more than others. If two people say “I do” at an altar or a registry office, they’re married. If two people say “I do” when asked if they like hamburgers—well, they’re still the same people; they’ve just expressed their opinions.

When the Hebrew prophets speak about God’s word, they’re talking about words that matter; words that have consequences. In fact, “God’s word” is inherently transformative. “God’s word” isn’t simply what God says. “God’s word” is anything uttered by God that makes something happen. God speaks the world into being; God blesses Creation, and calls it good; and God makes covenants with God’s people.

From the very beginning, God is always transforming Creation with God’s word. The problem is that we don’t always notice it.

That was the problem in Babylon, especially toward the end of the exile. The ancient Israelites had been in Babylon so long that they’d practically forgotten God. They’d been there so long, they couldn’t even remember when they gathered at the Temple. They had stopped seeking, looking, and listening for God’s Word.

That is the danger of exile from our customary rituals and worship. Without the sustenance of regular sacramental rhythms and fellowship, we risk missing the signs of God’s active presence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about exile lately: the ancient Israelites’ exile in Babylon, and our own exile in Covid-19. Like the Israelites, we have lost our places of worship. We are in a new and strange wilderness of remote learning and liturgy. While we may not have lost our homeland, our interior landscapes have changed. While we may not have lost our residences, we have lost our church buildings, at least temporarily. And so, many of us feel as if we have lost our homes; our spiritual homes which, to many of us, are signs of God’s active presence

This is where today’s passage from Isaiah can be a source of hope and refreshment. God hopes the Babylonian exile will be a time of renewal, as the Exodus had been. And so God gives Isaiah a vision of the divine word feeding and leading the exiles to new life.

God’s word is like the rain and the snow, watering the earth so it can bring new growth and life. “It shall not return to me empty,” God says, “but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

The message is clear: God’s word is always transforming Creation. Our task is to see it, hear it, and be changed by it.

One way in which the ancient Israelites have neglected God’s word is by forgetting their covenantal responsibilities. They have forgotten to “do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1.17). They have forgotten to care for the whole house of Israel.

We as a city have also forgotten to care for our larger household. While you may see occasional feel-good news items about people in tents getting housing, the reality is that thousands of Torontonians are still homeless. The reality is that people in tents are jumping the housing line, ahead of people who have been living in shelters for over a decade.

To be homeless is to be in exile, whether that exile is in Babylon or on the streets of Toronto. Homeless people are in exile from their families of origin, from the work force and, if they are indigenous as one-third of Toronto’s homeless people are, their own land.

The exiles of people with homes and people without homes are intertwined. Because as long as people remain vulnerable and homeless on our streets, we are in exile from God’s Kingdom. We are not seeing, hearing, or being changed by God’s word.

And yet God’s word is always active. Even in Genesis, God does not simply create the earth; God begins to create the earth. Creation is on-going. And we are part of Creation. God’s word re-creates us, over and over again. And in that re-creation, we are brought home.

Isaiah embodies God’s word when he tells the Israelites that God will “have mercy on them,” “abundantly pardon them,” and make “an everlasting covenant” with them. To be told we are love and forgiven and to believe it is to be changed. That is God’s word at work.

Words of love and forgiveness are essential to our return from exile. And as our city, province, and country move into the post-Covid “Rebuilding and Recovery” phase, there are opportunities for both. What is legislation if not transforming words? While legislation can seem abstract at times, it can be love in action. When laws are enacted to protect the most vulnerable, legislation can be an expression of the divine word, whether God is mentioned or not.

Thousands of lives can be saved if we extend mercy to people who use drugs and allow them access to safe supply. Thousands of homeless people could get off the streets if we simply forgave their rental arrears and offered them the support they need to stay housed. And millions of people could be lifted out of poverty and homelessness with a guaranteed annual income.

All Saints Church-Community Centre recently paid the rental arrears of a homeless parishioner. He incurred the arrears when he left his apartment due to a traumatic situation and the property management was slow to find another tenant. After living in shelters for over two years, he is finally moving into his own apartment on August 1. And I am overjoyed.

Isaiah says “you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace.” There is joy when we know our household is cared for. When our larger household is cared for, we can know the peace of shalom; the peace that is fullness of life for all. When everyone is cared for, when everyone has fullness of life, we have come home to God, whether we are in our church buildings or not. And this fullness of life, this shalom, is the true, everlasting sign of God’s active presence.

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