Proper 23C / Ordinary 28C / Pentecost +21
October 13, 2013
Luke 17:11-19“The paycheck federal workers have been dreading hit bank accounts across the region Friday, representing salaries cut in half for most idled employees. The next payday will be all zeros …” (Steve Hendrix, Washington Post, October 10, 2013)
As the fallout from the U.S. government shutdown ripples through the country, furloughed federal workers are scrambling to cope with bills that are coming due in the face of halved incomes. Some are tapping savings. Some are taking part-time jobs. The promise of restored pay approved by the House of Representatives remains an empty one as long as the government stays shuttered – and the government shows no signs of doing anything else.
I can say from experience that the exile of the government furlough for federal workers is taking an emotional toll as well as a financial one. As I scuttle around an empty house all day like a lonely insect, it’s very difficult to stay focused and maintain a sense of purpose. Some days, I have fits of productivity (I started a new blog called “How to Survive a Government Shutdown,” with practical, daily, non-partisan advice). Some days, the most productive thing I can think of is taking a nap.
The exiles of Jerusalem after the Babylonian conquest were also at a loss. All they could think of was their homeland:If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy (Psalm 137:5-6).
Scuttling around in a lonely, foreign land, surrounded by hostile people, grief threatened to consume them.
In the Hebrew Bible reading for this week, the prophet Jeremiah intervenes in this prolonged mourning period with a letter to the exiles:“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4-5,7).
This advice must have felt like a slap in the face for the exiles. For elite Jews from the city of YHWH’s dwelling (Jerusalem), seeking the welfare of the land of their pagan conquerors would not just have been humiliatingly absurd, it would have been seen as treason and apostasy. The rage of Psalm 137 would have been uppermost in their minds: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (vv.8-9).
For loyal, long-term federal workers, the prospect of having to take a part-time job to make ends meet has been a hard one. One federal worker – a man with a biology degree from U. Mass. at Amherst – is taking up a part time job as a school janitor because “I just have to figure out where the money is going to come from”. His wife ruefully commented, “My husband is so intelligent and has all these degrees, and he’s cleaning up barf in a middle school” (Hendrix, ibid.). The abrupt transition from secure, full-time work to any work that is available has been jarring and even frightening for many. The suggestion that well-qualified federal workers should do so probably feels like a slap in the face (after all, we still technically have jobs, but we’re not allowed to work them or be paid for them).
As a furloughed fed myself, though, I know I can’t afford the luxury of protracted depression or self-pity. It would be very easy to sit back, watch the SyFy channel all day, and pin my hopes on the dim prospect that Congress will wake up, open up the government back up, and restore my livelihood. The wiser (and more difficult) course is “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. I am reviewing our finances and plugging all leaks. I am going to purge our home of all unused or useless items and put them up for sale at our church’s “Treasures Sale” next weekend. I am volunteering at my church. If worse comes to worse, I will look for local part-time work.
In the process of all this, I am acquiring an appreciation of the place where I live. I am cleaning and improving our home. I am learning all the wonderful things our church does. I am growing where I am planted and learning that YHWH is there with me.