Strangers in a Strange Land

November 26th, 2017

Strangers in a Strange Land
Jeremiah 32: 6-15
November 26, 2017

The unimaginable happened for Tsutomu Yamaguchi on August 6, 1945. He was an engineer for Mitsubishi and had been on a three month long business trip. All he wanted to do was get home to see his wife, Hisako, and their infant son, Katsutoshi. At the moment, though, he was still doing business in Hiroshima.

At that moment, an American B-29 bomber flew over the city and dropped a small object attached to a parachute. Yamaguchi saw the blast, which he described as, “the lightning of a huge magnesium flare.” He threw himself into a ditch just as an ear-splitting boom rang out. The shock wave that followed sucked him out of the ditch, spun him in the air and threw him into a potato patch. He was less than two miles from ground zero.

Yamaguchi fainted. When he opened his eyes, everything was dark. The dust and the debris from the atomic blast nearly blotted out the morning sun. Ash was falling from the sky. He could see a mushroom cloud of fire rising over Hiroshima. His face and arms were badly burned. His eardrums were ruptured. He wandered the shipyard for hours and then made his way to an air raid shelter. Finally, he and several other men made their way to a far off train station, trying hard not to focus on the bodies, searching for a bridge where he could cross the river. Eventually, he boarded a train along with lots of other burned and injured passengers. He was going home to his wife and child, home to Nagasaki.

Yamaguchi arrived home early in the morning on August 8. He limped to the hospital where the doctor who treated him was a former classmate in school. He was so badly burned, though, that the doctor did not recognize him. When he returned home, his own mother saw him covered in bandages and ravaged with a fever and thought he was a ghost.

Astoundingly, the next morning, August 9th, Yamaguchi crawled out of bed to report to work at the local Mitsubishi office. Around 11:00 a.m., he was in a meeting when the company director demanded a full report about the events in Hiroshima. Yamaguchi, the engineer, offered up his most objective observations: the bomber, the parachute, the flash, the boom, the shockwave. The director told him that he was crazy. He asked, “How could a single bomb destroy an entire city?” Yamaguchi was literally struggling to answer that question when the landscape around them exploded and the blinding flash poured over them. Yamaguchi dropped to the floor just a second before the windows imploded and glass sliced through the room. For the second time in three days, he had been present for a nuclear explosion. For the second time in three days, he survived.

He immediately ran to his home but found only rubble. However, his wife and child weren’t in the house when it was destroyed. They were at a drug store getting bandages and ointment for him. When the explosion came, they were walking in a tunnel. Yamaguchi’s medical needs and their compassion saved their lives.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi was the only person recognized by the Japanese government as a “nijyuu hibakusha,” or “twice-bombed person.” At age 89, in 2006, he broke his silence on his survival experiences in a speech to the United Nations in which he identified himself as opposed to the existence and the use of nuclear weapons. In 2010, he died at the age of 93.

Life includes moments of liberation. It includes wilderness days that invite us to realize what matters and what doesn’t matter, that invite us to see how much we need each other and how much we need God. Life includes that day when we step into our own personal “Promised Land” and almost immediately start taking everything for granted. And life includes days like Mr. Yamaguchi’s days when life as we know it ends and our job is simply to survive and keep hope alive.

Of all the unimaginable things that might have occurred to our ancestors in faith, the most unimaginable was that their nation would ever fall. They were sure that God would simply never let that happen. They were God’s chosen people. God had brought them out of slavery, through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. God had given them a whole set of kings over the years (most of whom—admittedly— didn’t exactly rise to the challenge.) They had given God a really lovely home—a temple, far away from the marketplace, far away from their homes—a place they could visit should the need ever arise. All was right in their world…

If only they could get the prophets to shut up. Like a burr in their sandals, the prophets always seemed to be around. They would point out that the covenant was conditional, “I will be your God if you keep my commandments.” They would point out the ways that the people had broken that covenant. The prophets saw how folks cheated each other in the marketplace and cried out that they were not supposed to steal. The prophets saw the corruption of the community’s life and reminded folks that they should have no other gods but God. Nathan even had the gall to call out King David, himself, for a small helping of adultery and a little murder. The prophets had the nerve to tell the people the truth that they would rather not hear. The people and those in power would never really forgive the prophets for speaking the truth that way.

Worst of all, perhaps, was Jeremiah. Things were tough already. No one was feeling that good about themselves. No one was making the big bucks. Everyone was worried about the Babylonians. What did Jeremiah do? He set up clay pots and smashed them and then said, “That’s pretty much what’s going to happen to us.” He paraded around town with an ox yoke on his shoulders and said, basically, “Time to get ready to be a slave again!” Everyone did everything they could to get the man to show a little human decency and shut up. When he refused, they threw him into a pit. He barely was out of the pit when the unimaginable took place…

The nation fell. The people were carried away into captivity. As that nation fell and as the people became slaves once again, their only conclusion was that God had failed them: “How could God let this happen? Had God forgotten just how special we are?” Without any real sense still of their own responsibility for this catastrophe, the people just fell into despair.

It was in that moment when someone remembered Jeremiah again. What they remembered was something he had done and something that he had said. What he had done—in the very midst of everything collapsing—was…he bought land. It seemed stupid to most folks at the time: who buys land when the whole nation is being seized. Yet, now, what it looked like, instead, was an act of hope. People only buy land when they expect there to be a future in which they will have a chance to enjoy that land. Jeremiah had been right about all the destruction. What if he was right about there being hope for a future, too?

All of this led the people to remember Jeremiah’s haunting words. At one point, when almost no one was listening, when almost everyone was trying to shout him down and shut him up, that crazy prophet had said that there would be a new covenant. This one wouldn’t be written on stone. This covenant would be written on people’s hearts. This covenant wouldn’t require any lawyers to explain it. No priests would be needed for folks to know God. Instead, things were going to be simple. God was going to be loving and forgiving and merciful—no matter what. What if Jeremiah was right, not just about their being hope, but there being a chance for a whole new relationship with God, too?

Time passed. (Time always passes.) The world was pretty dark. (There is always plenty of darkness, after all.) Yet, even when our ancestors felt like strangers in a strange land, when they couldn’t make sense of what had happened and when they could barely hold onto hope, the people caught glimpses of God’s presence along the way—in a moment when forgiveness came to life, in an act of compassion, in the awe of the night sky or the aching beauty of the setting sun, in the words and actions of some prophet of old. Nothing was quite right. Nothing was the way that it should be. Still…they held onto one another and did their very best to hold onto hope. They did what it took to survive.

The Promised Land—life the way we want it to be—never lasts. Sooner or later, we make the choices that undermine it or others make the choices that unleash destruction or enough time passes that things just change. Someone dies. A job is lost. A tragedy comes our way. It’s unimaginable. It’s unthinkable. And yet, it is irrevocable. We look up in the rear view mirror and we see the Promised Land receding from our view.

With time and with the hard work of grieving what’s been lost, what we come to see is that the Promised Land may be gone but the promised relationship isn’t. When the darkness comes, the stars begin to shine. We become aware of the simplest sources of light again: the kindness of a stranger; the comfort of ancient words; the incredible importance of our fellow survivors and of the simplest pleasures. Once again, we remember what matters and what doesn’t matter. Once again, we realize that what matters most is not stopping change from happening but staying connected through the change that comes, connected to each other and to God.

In Exile, in captivity, our ancestors learned to wait and to hope, to wonder what it was that God would one day do, to open themselves to the God who could be present, even when they were strangers in a strange land.

Then, one day, in the quietest of ways, the unimaginable happened again—something unimaginably wonderful— a star appeared over a stable in Bethlehem.

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