Updated: May 11
by Rev. Sunyoung Lee, Senior Pastor
“By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and
there we wept when we remembered Zion.”
PSALM 137:1 (NRSV)
The words in Psalm 137 poetically capture the essence of the state of Israelites, who were held as captives in Babylon. As people that were carried off to a distant land of the enemies, Jews were in an aggravating situation that was utterly devastating and miserable - their holy temple destroyed, the once glorious city of Jerusalem completely ravaged and burned, and their precious possessions gone. In Babylon, their captors cruelly mocked and insulted their existence and even ridiculed them to sing a song of mirth. How can Jews not lament their wretched state as they sit by the riverside and remember their former glory and happy days in their native land, especially as their future looked nothing but bleak? They knew that the life they once had was no more and nothing would be the same again.
I know what we are experiencing in this spring of the year 2020 is nothing close to what the Israelites had to endure, but the past two months have felt like being in a new kind of exile of the modern times, the coronavirus exile. I can somewhat relate to that displaced Jew in a foreign land yearning to go back home to Jerusalem as I, too, grieve being forced to isolation, unable to physically meet my loved ones and prevented from worshiping with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in the sanctuary of Centenary, the house of God. Even when the “Safer at Home Order” is lifted and we are allowed to come back to Little Tokyo at Phase 3 of reopening California, I’m unsure whether the church will be the same again. This outbreak of COVID-19 will be remembered as the one that made a significant mark in the 21st century that uprooted lives.
However, the times of exile indicated in the Bible were not the ultimate end for the Israelites; Jews were not lost to history as a result of banishment and expulsion. They were always able to regroup, despite their share of national tragedies and hardships. In fact, Janina M. Hiebel, a biblical scholar, stated that “The Babylonian Exile (597/587–539 BCE) is commonly recognized as perhaps the most profound, yet also most fruitful crisis in biblical (Old Testament) times.” Having gone through such catastrophe as that of an exile, Jews were able to reshape their self-understanding, which allowed them to maintain their loyalty to God and their beloved nation. The fall of Jerusalem turned out to be a great turning point in their life.
As I imagine how life would be post-coronavirus, I take comfort in the Holy Scripture that reminds me that the dark times in human life are nothing new and that we can survive this plague not to mention thrive as a result of it. The following image of the almighty yet gracious God depicted in the Book of Isaiah is speaking powerfully to me today, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:28-31, NRSV).
Friends, I ask all of you to do some reflection on how things were and how things should be. It is my hope and prayer that as we return from our pandemic exile: we will learn from this health crisis and reprioritize our life as we consider what truly matters in life; we will grow stronger in our love for one another and our communities; and we will hold true to our faith in the resurrected Christ, drawing ever closer to God. Frederick Buechner so wisely penned these words, “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” Indeed, we are the people of resurrection, and through faith and hope, we will endure, rebuild, and come back stronger from this moment of rupture.
Rev. Sunyoung Lee