Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 & Luke 17:11-19 for Pentecost +21, October 9, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 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. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
One of my favorite melodies, probably because it combines beauty and sadness together, is a musical setting of Psalm 137 entitled “By the Rivers of Babylon” by the band called Lamb. Its sadness comes from its setting. “By the rivers of Babylon,” it says, “we sat and wept for Zion.”
The speaker is one of the exiles. A Jewish person torn from his home and homeland by the world-class Empire of Babylon. He has been ripped out of his context to try to survive where nothing is familiar, nothing feels “normal” and where everything he thought was going to be true about his future and the future of his family and his people has been foreclosed.
Somehow, the experience of living away from home, of living in exile in a foreign land is deeply human. Perhaps it is part of the human condition. Life has a way of never being the way we thought it was going to be.
Is your life now like you expected? Is the world now what you thought it would be? We keep encountering the unfamiliar and unexpected. Who knew the world would turn out like this? Who knew we would be living this life in this way? Who knew we would have to have gone through all of that to get here?
Some of us have a sense of nostalgia for the safe, secure homes we left as we grew into adulthood. Others fled from homes of chaos and suffering, and now long to make a new home under radically different conditions.
I do not often take the time to look at both texts that we read each Sunday, but today we will. Both of them are all about the space we inhabit, and what it means to be there. If the space we all inhabit is some form of exile from home, how do we live here? The God question is particularly poignant: If I am in exile, where is God? How do I live?
God, in Exile
So, back to the rivers of Babylon with the Jewish exiles. How do they feel in exile? I am sure they feel completely abandoned by God in that context. Why did God allow the calamity of the Babylonian invasion? Why did God not protect even God’s own temple or priests, let alone the king and his whole family? Everything familiar is gone. What happened to the promise God made to Abraham to give them land and to bless them? Now the land belongs to Babylon, and there is no blessing to be found. Perhaps you too have gone through times when those questions sounded like your questions.
The text we read is from the prophet Jeremiah. It is his letter to the surviving Jewish leadership in exile, some of whom are among those sitting by the river of Babylon, weeping for Zion. Grief over loss is normal. It is grief over a lost future you had counted on.
But Jeremiah asserts that grief over loss must not become crippling nostalgia. The quest the prophet calls the people to is not to a recovery of a past glory. The challenge to exiles is to live life today, in a new, strange, unfamiliar context, counting on God to be there with you in that context.
And what does God want for you in that foreign context? He wants your “welfare” our English version says. The Hebrew word is “shalom”. It means your wholeness, your well-being in every sense. How will you experience God’s shalom? Listen to the prophet’s call to the exiles:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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 (shalom) you will find your welfare (shalom).”
Do not become a community of grief-stricken nostalgia. Do not become a community of isolation, uncontaminated by Babylonian culture and custom. Rather, get involved. Participate. Live! Be fruitful and multiply because the original blessing of creation is still in effect.
Especially, “seek the shalom of the city…and pray to the Lord on its behalf” – What? pray for the well-being of our enemies? Yes. Why? Because the deep spiritual truth that God has hard-wired into the universe is this: “in it’s shalom, you will find your shalom.” In it’s wholeness and well-being, you will find your wholeness and well-being.”
How is this possible? Because God is with you there in that strange context, luring you, coaxing you, persuading you to new possibilities of hope. God is there offering you the opportunity to live into what is good, what is beautiful and what is true, even there in exile. And as you seek the shalom of the people and conditions of your exile, in their shalom, you will find your shalom, because God is there.
How could this not have been part of the mental furniture in Jesus’ mind, in his context? His context was not the exile of Babylon, but another kind of exile. At home in the promised land, the empire of Rome claimed authority and dictated the terms of public life. Economically, it was devastating for most people.
So what do you do in that context? What happens to the promise of God to bless the descendants of Abraham? Luke tells this story with the artistry of a fine brush. Notice where it takes place:
“the region between Samaria and Galilee”
In other words, home to no one. It is no-man’s-land. It is between places. That is a form of homeless exile.
Who does Jesus meet there? Exiles of another kind. Lepers. People who are forcibly exiled from the community because of a condition they did not ask for but cannot escape. Notice, they have internalized their ostracism. Luke tells us,
“they were keeping their distance”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer likes to refer to Jesus as “the man for others,” and that is exactly what he is in this scene. He does not live into the normal narrative of exclusion. Once, we read, he touched a leper. We do not know what he did this time; only that he told them what to do next. Lepers could not be received back into the community in those days until a priest signed off on their healing. So Jesus told them to go show themselves as clean people to the priest.
For Jesus, no one is excluded from the community. Jesus was a person whose whole life was lived with compassion for others, especially for the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized and the excluded. Instinctively, he did not move away from the lepers, but towards them, with the mercy they were seeking.
Jesus shows us what God does; that is our theology. God’s mercy is always coming to us, finding us, including us, healing us. As Jesus is compassionate, so God is compassionate. Especially to exiles.
Luke tells us that there were ten lepers. Why ten? No explanation. In later Judaism, ten were required to form a prayer assembly, in other words, a community. So there were enough formerly excluded lepers to form a community in that nether land region between Samaria and Galilee.
In exile, where Jesus met them, they could together, seek, and find shalom, welfare, well being. God had not abandoned them there.
In the epilogue to the healing story a new wrinkle appears. One of them returns with gratitude for the miracle of the mercy of his restoration to the community. And this one, we learn, was a Samaritan. So now, Luke has revealed to us that at least one of the lepers had yet another layer of reasons for being marginalized by the people who claimed direct access to the promise of God to Abraham. He was not purely Jewish. So now we see a deeper level of God’s compassion.
Being In the Story
Where do we place ourselves in this story? We could be part of the 12 followers of Jesus, simply witnessing this amazing story. We see Jesus with compassion, reaching out to the most hurting, suffering people, and bringing God’s mercy to them.
Or, we could see ourselves as one of those lepers, living in a context that feels so alien to the life we had imagined for ourselves, in a kind of exile, wondering what God is doing. If so, if we are one of them, we can seek the shalom of the context we find ourselves in, because God has not abandoned us there. There is a community of people just like us, ready to welcome us, to share life with us, and to follow Jesus with.
Perhaps we can most identify with the one leper, the Samaritan, who returned with great gratitude for the mercy he received. That is what we gather to do together. That is what Eucharist means: thanksgiving. We are a community of thanksgiving, of deep gratitude because God has found us in our exile, and restored us to his community.
Whomever we identify with in this story, we are transformed by it. We see the model of compassion in Jesus, and we feel the luring of God to be people of compassion. When we feel the love of God for us, in spite of our context, in spite of our condition, we feel the lure towards goodness and mercy for the others around us. When our hearts overflow with gratitude for God’s great mercy and healing, we want nothing better than to extend his welcome to everyone. For in their shalom, we find our shalom.
So how do we seek the shalom, the well-being of our context? Simply by asking, who is excluded from the blessing? We could be methodical about the question, by asking, “Who is experiencing the most advantages and the biggest rewards here in this context?” Then you may ask, what benefits and advantages should be denied the others?
So, in our context, it seems clear that healthy, Caucasian, heterosexual males from strong, supportive families, who had good educations have the greatest advantages. In other words, people like me. So, which of their advantages should be denied women, or people of color, or gay people, or people born into cycles of poverty with dysfunctional family patterns and poor educations?
We ask, what systems are in place in our context that perpetuate the status quo? What is the role of the justice system in this context? What about the health care system and educational systems, as well as economic systems? How do we address those, as a shalom-seeking community?
Change towards increasing shalom for everyone, especially the ones Jesus went out of his way to bless, is a large task. In the mean time, we can be the community for all of them. We can be the place where people can find the 10 healed lepers and find community. We can be the community of great gratitude for finding God active in our lives, even in our specific exiles. And we can be the community for others, as Jesus was “the man for others”, extending God’s healing shalom to all the people God loves – to everyone.