Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it.” When session last met I said that I planned to have a service in which we focused on our new mission statement: To live by faith and be known by love. This passage from Habakkuk seemed to provide the perfect opportunity. Today is also Reformation Sunday – and, although, I’m not focusing on that, the idea of Reformation is a constant reminder that we are always to be reformed, recreated. Reformation is an ongoing event.
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it.” As I listened to three scholars reflect on this passage, one of them said, “How could runners possibly read the vision?” It got me thinking about church signs. When I was in seminary, one of my preaching professors talked about his professor who demanded sermon titles that would grab attention. He told his students, “I want you to write a title that would make someone get off the bus!” Our professor’s story was that he, or someone in his class, wrote just the right title: “There’s a bomb on your bus!” (It was a different age!) He was not a fan of sermon titles – meant to be cute or clever. In fact, her would not accept sermon titles. He feared they would trivialize the message.
One of the other scholars in the conversation said that our translation is misleading. He suggested that the intent is to write the vision on tablets so that it can be taken with the runner – and taken out into the community and shared.
“Write the vision.” I have to admit, I had never asked a church to do this before. Maybe I assumed that the vision was plain. “We’re to follow God!” But, what does that mean in a particular context? Different churches, different communities of faith, are called to serve God in different ways, according to their gifts and abilities. One thing I read again and again in my research was that the vision, the mission statement, should be short – short enough for everyone to know it. (This is true for churches and businesses!) I am grateful that this session chose a mission statement that is brief – and, I think, memorable. “To live by faith and be known by love!”
So, what’s the purpose of a mission or a vision statement? Good statements shape the life of a church or an organization. They provide a touchstone for our planning and our doing. It is not enough to have the vision. We let the vision call us, inform and form us. A speaker at a presbytery gathering said that we should take the mission or vision statement and then set goals, objectives that can be embraced, carried out, and, in a sense, measured. For example, she talked of one church that undertook a feeding program, to live into their mission statement. They said they would plan to serve a particular number of meals in the coming year. When they accomplished that goal, they set a new one, increasing the number.
I was going to use only the Habakkuk passage, but, it struck me that the gospel lesson is also one about vision. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In many ways, the parable from last week takes on flesh in this story. Jesus had said that the tax collector in the temple, the one who cried, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” was the one who went home justified – set right in God’s eyes. Here, we have a tax collector who wanted to see Jesus – but he could not. He was small in stature, the story says. What that means is a little unclear! Does that mean he was short? Or does that mean he was held in little regard by his people – because of his position? Whatever the interpretation, he was prevented from getting close to Jesus. So, this man ran ahead and climbed a tree – a piece of information that Jesus’ hearers’ would have found unimaginable! No dignified, self-respecting man would have dared to do such a thing! But, he wanted to see Jesus. He wanted to see this man who might help him be reconciled to God. He had a vision that drove him to act. In return, Jesus saw him – and offered him the grace he needed.
I think of that professor’s aversion to sermon titles frequently – especially when I’m trying to think of a good title. I have to admit I look at sermon titles on church signs. You can sometimes get a sense of what matters to a particular church by its public postings. Some of those public postings are funny. Some are terribly judgmental. Some have little to do with faith. Now, those are not vision statements. They’re peeks into what that church values behind its walls.
I think the passage from Habakkuk reminds us that our vision is not only about how we are people of faith within these walls. Our vision needs to call us out into the world as well.
Our new statement has just two parts: to live by faith and be known by love. To live by faith speaks to our own faith journey – as individuals and as a congregation. It reminds us that we need to explore and deepen our faith daily, weekly, monthly, yearly –throughout our lives. God is always calling us to grow in our understanding, to shed our blinders and see God anew. The church – the people of God – is God’s gift to us. Here we seek together, we challenge one another, we explore and question and support each other in this great adventure of being God’s beloved.
As we talked about what we could do to live into this portion of our mission statement, we decided to reinstitute the conversations after church and add a once a month potluck that would include a program. That may be enough for the year – or maybe there is something else we could or should be doing to help us grow and deepen our (your) faith. What other ideas might we consider?
• Invite others to come to church
• Continue having the last hymn be a special one suggested by someone in the congregation. (Maybe enhanced by sharing a story about why that hymn matters.)
The second part of our statement is “to be known by love.” This church has always been generous in its mission giving. The session has had some wonderful conversations about our community. There is a lot to celebrate about Gulfport – its diversity and inclusiveness. We’ve talked of ways that our presence in this community could be in celebration of the wonderful aspects of where we are located. I know that we have folks who are out there, present, participating and contributing to this community’s assets. That is a way of being “known by love.” We’ve talked about the possibility of doing something that can be known as this church’s contribution to the whole community. Right now, nothing is planned. Of course, no community is perfect and there are people who need to know of God’s love and concern. Over the past few years session has often spoken of Gulfport Elementary School – one of this county’s struggling schools. I met with the principal and he told me that it ranks as the fourth worst school in the county. He, Mr. Hathaway, is new this year, charged with turning this school around. So, to be known by love, session chose to focus on this school. One way is by having monthly drives to provide for the school. Today we are dedicating what we’ve collected during October. For November, I would suggest that we collect those composition notebooks (black and white marbled covers). They need to be wide-ruled. I’m going to talk with Mr. Hathaway to see if there is any interest in having a buddy or friendship bench for the playground – a way of working against bullying.
Do you have ideas as to how we might be “known by love?” What can we do in our community to share God’s love more broadly – and to celebrate the signs of God’s gifts of diversity and inclusion where and when we find it?
From the congregation:
• Continue supporting the missions and ministries that have been important to the congregation.
• Be a good neighbor!
As I was thinking about our mission/vision statement and about Habakkuk’s directive that it be written on tablets so a runner could read it, I wondered how we might take this statement into the world – in ways that remind us and, perhaps, invite others to know it. I’ve put new posters in the back. It’s on the bulletin. I’m thinking about doing a banner. But all of that is internal.
I was trying to think of something I could make for everyone – and I suddenly thought of those wristbands that people wear to show their support for particular causes. It turns out, you can order wristbands quite reasonably. So, I did. I’m planning to wear mine daily – as a reminder to me of the vision, the mission, “to live by faith and be known by love.” I invite you to take a wristband – let it remind you of God’s call to us, to journey in faith and to share God’s love. “Write the vision; make it plain.”
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
The Rev. Dr. David Lose reflected, “Paul Tillich, commenting on the Apostle Paul's assertion that the gospel is a stumbling block, once said that the danger is stumbling over the wrong thing.” This morning’s parable is one of those parables that causes us to stumble. We easily get tripped up by its content and message.
The thing is, as Lose points out, the parable, at first hearing, seems straightforward enough. After all, we’re used to hearing about those terrible Pharisees! They couldn’t do anything right! So, we hear this parable and immediately think, “Oh, we’re not like that!” Yet, as soon as we even begin to think that way, to compare ourselves with the Pharisees, we have become Pharisees! Lose says anytime we state, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” we have stumbled over the block that the parable places before us. By his world's standards, the Pharisee had reason to be proud. He had done, he was doing, what was expected of a man of faith. He was, by church law, tradition, and expectation, a righteous man.
What is our focus, in the church? In many ways, isn’t it to raise up people of faith, people who will excel in righteousness and be the foundation of good societies? At one time, almost every community was organized around church life. The good people were center stage in our communal life. Look at old pictures of small towns and cities. The skylines were dotted with steeples, for churches were the prominent buildings in the town. We strive to live up to the words in Second Timothy. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day…” Faith has become something we do! We have responsibilities. God asks us to be good, responsible people.
The traditional reading of this parable, influenced by centuries of disdain for Pharisees, makes us choose the tax collector as our ideal. Yet, in every way imaginable, the tax collector was not righteous. His very job prevented righteousness, for his work required him to do things outside of the law – to handle foreign money, to keep account of and collect debts and taxes. It required him to work with those who represented a government that threatened his people – their lives, lifestyle, and fundamentally, their faith. This is not the kind of person we would seek out for our churches! So, we had better be careful that we don’t trip over the stumbling block this parable presents. The ideal for righteousness is one we would still call unrighteous. Our own values align us again and again with the Pharisee. We’re not worthless like that tax collector!
A colleague once said to me that he was going to eliminate the prayer of confession. “People feel bad enough about themselves,” he said. “They don’t need a prayer that reminds them.” Someone else left the church because she objected to the “downer” prayer of confession. She declared that she certainly wasn’t guilty those sins! One church I preached at had a member who seemed to hear, in every sermon, words that others needed to hear. “You sure told them,” he would say to me after church each Sunday. We want to be recognized as those who fight the good fight, those who are faithful to the end of the race, those who have earned God’s favor and God’s reward.
Anne Lamott wrote a wonderful book on prayer titled Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers. She begins by reminding us that prayer comes from a place of honesty. It speaks truth. That seems a simple thing – yet it isn’t. In so many ways we’re schooled to come into God’s presence with poetry and carefully worded prayers that will honor God with their beauty. We think that we are supposed to present our very best to God – which means that, too often, we are less than honest. That’s evident in the way we treat church. How many people say they can’t come to church because they don’t have the right clothes, or they are emotionally fragile and afraid of showing that fragility to others, or they’re just not good enough to be there. And the church does little to combat those perceptions. Lamott says, "…we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape." And is that not the story of the tax collector in this parable? “We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.” “’God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other..”
Lose says, "One makes a claim to righteousness based on own accomplishments while other relies entirely upon the Lord's benevolence.” Lamott, in her chapter on the prayer “help” writes, “There's freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won't be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you've reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin…" "Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through….It is the first great prayer.". That is the prayer offered by the tax collector. He knew he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t put the pieces of his life together and measure up to what God called him to be. “Help. Have mercy!”
That’s a hard prayer for us in our society, our culture, that values, honors, celebrates and expects self-reliance. We want Pharisees. We expect Pharisees who, by their own fortitude, can right the wrongs and fix the world. Just think about the election – about what we expect to hear from candidates at every level. We want those strong, independent leaders who will grasp the power to make everything right. Yet, they get into office and discover that their power is limited – thank you, God – and they cannot fulfill all the promises they have made. Lamott stresses our need to understand that we cannot control everything. So, we come to God and pray simply, “Help!” "I try not to finagle God,” she says. “Some days go better than others, especially during election years. I ask that God's will be done, and I mostly sort of mean it."
Lose's reflections also seem appropriate for the political climate dominating our news these days. The trap of the parable is: “ as soon as we fall prey to temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee…Anytime you draw a line between who's ‘in’ and who's ‘out,’ this parable asserts you will find God on the other side… It is a parable about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.”
Any time we begin to draw the lines naming who’s in and who’s out, God is on the other side. The divides in our country are growing deeper and deeper. They are divides of political affiliation, race, religion, economic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation – the list is long. But, as soon as we make lists and judge ourselves in comparison or contrast, we are the Pharisees who forget that we need, all of us, to cry “Help!”
Lamott writes, "Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, something. These prayers say, 'Dear Some Something, I don't know what I'm doing. I can't see where I'm going. I'm getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help.”
I think it was in the 1970s that the book I’m OK, You’re OK came out. We had to read it in seminary. The professor of the class liked the book, generally. It attempted to lift self-esteem which for so many was and is dreadfully low. He suggested, however, that according to Reformed theology the title of the book should be I’m Not OK. You’re Not OK. But That’s OK. We share in a prayer of confession to remind us that we are in need of God’s love and God’s mercy. Our justification does not come from our own acts, but from God’s love for us. The passage from Timothy sounds like self-reliance – yet the author recognizes that his work flowed from the gift of God’s strength. He did not do it on his own! For Lamott, restoration begins with acknowledging that “we are so ruined, so loved and in charge of so little!” “We start where we are. We find God in our human lives, and that includes the suffering. I get thirsty people glasses of water; even if that thirsty person is just me."
You may have found a little piece of paper attached to the insert. As Lamott expanded on the need to recognize that we’re in charge of so little, she said that part of the prayer “Help” is learning to let go – to recognize our inability to change the world, others, or even our very selves. She wrote, “One modest tool for letting go in prayer that I’ve used for twenty-five years is a God box..The container has to exist in time and space, so you can physically put a note in it, so you can see yourself let go, in time and space. On the note I write down the person about whom I am distressed or angry, or describe the situation that is killing me, with which I am toxically, crazily obsessed, and I fold the note up, stick it in the box and close it. You might have a brief moment of prayer…Then I agree to keep my sticky mitts off the spaceship until I hear back.”
So, the little piece of paper is for you to take, if you wish. Find your own God box. (I would have liked to have been able to give everyone something to use, but I couldn’t think of what would be appropriate. Lamott has used different things through the years – fancy boxes, plain boxes, gifts from friends. The God box is a way of acknowledging our need for HELP. And it comes – in some form, over time. “You will come to know,” she says. “In surrender you have won.”
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified! “Help!”
Luke 18:1-8, Jeremiah 31:27-34
When I was growing up there was a “puzzle” that made the rounds on the playground. It is a “puzzle” that I read again recently.
A boy and his father were in a car accident. They were rushed to the hospital. One of the doctors came in and looked at the boy. The doctor said, “I can’t treat him. This is my son!” How can that be?
Today, wouldn’t we say, almost immediately, that the doctor was the boy’s mother? Wouldn’t we decry the prejudice and bias that might not see that as a possibility? We could laugh at the limited sight the puzzle demonstrates.. But, limited sight persists. I read a story this week about a black woman doctor who volunteered to help someone on an airplane – and was told over and over again by flight attendants that she should get out of the way. What were her credentials? Could she prove that she was a doctor? A white man was accepted immediately, without having to prove himself.
All of us are biased in some way. I heard someone on a political show talk about the need for unbiased reporting. The host said that everyone has bias. It is unavoidable. The best reporting comes when that bias is not given free reign, when it doesn’t shut out other voices. Bias needs to be challenged –in others and in ourselves. Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey said that we need to be aware of the bias spectacles that we wear when we encounter the Scripture. Every reading is an interpretation that is influenced by our assumptions which arise out of our life-experience and the culture in which we live.
That brings us to today’s gospel lesson, titled in the NRSV “The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge.” It is a strange parable. Scholars point out that it is unique to the Gospel of Luke. What is the author or Jesus telling us about God in this story that tells about someone in a position of power who is willingly deaf to the needs of a powerless person? We know that experience too well in our own world. There is an increasing divide between the rich and the poor. There was an article in the Tampa Bay Times just this week that names cities in Florida as among the worst in the nation when it comes to that division. Miami and the Tampa Bay area both made the list! And, for many of those who live on the edges of society – in our own and other nations – the powerful seem to be unhearing and uncaring.
The parable seems to indicate that if we “pester” God, God will finally acquiesce to our demands. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in answering them?” We’re told, it seems, that God is not like the unjust judge. Yet, how often do we find ourselves struggling because it seems that God is not attentive to our prayers? Sometimes we do theological gymnastics. We declare that, yes, God answers all prayers. Sometimes God’s answer is “No!” Yet, that is an un-satisfying answer for those who pour out their pain, their fear, and even their anger. God’s answer of “no” sounds suspiciously like the unjust judge.
This is one of those challenging parables. Now parables are not allegories. It is the story as a whole that embodies Jesus’ message. We can’t and shouldn’t easily or readily assign hard and fast identities to the characters. So, we can’t hear “judge” and think “God.” Biblical scholar Walter Wink suggested that we are to put ourselves into Biblical stories in multiple ways. We can’t always be the hero, or the faithful disciple. We are sometimes to see ourselves as Pharisees, Scribes or Sadducees. As we encounter this parable I think our first inclination is to see ourselves as the widow seeking justice. And, therefore, we place God in the role of the judge. We cry out to our powerful God, and hope for a judge who is more attentive to our plight.
John Buchanan points out that the focus of this parable is not “using God to get what one wants or needs – unless, of course, we understand that what God knows we need and what we think we want are not at all the same thing.” He is calling us to a spiritual maturity that recognizes that God is not the same as Santa Claus. You may remember the popularity of the prayer of Jabez – a prayer taken out of context. The prayer is, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm.” That got interpreted by modern Christianity as a directive that we should be selfish in our prayers – specifically selfish. Scholar Huston Smith observed, “When the consequences of belief are worldly goods, such as health, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decenter the ego, not paper to its desires.” God is not the wish granter who will acquiesce to our prayers that we win the lottery. The issue in the parable is justice. Buchanan writes of growing up with loving parents who would not grant his every wish. Yet, they were concerned, always, about what he needed.
I am reminded of a wonderful folk tale about a widow who lost her only child. She heard about a holy man who had the power to overcome her loss. So, she went to the man and pleaded for him to give her son back to her. He listened. Then he advised her. “I will give you what you ask for if you can bring me a feather from a house that has never known sorrow.” She went with joy, expecting the task to be easy. She started at the home of a wealthy man. “They are rich. They can’t know sorrow!” she said to herself. As the door opened, she weeping. “What’s wrong?” she asked the servant. “The master’s child has died. The house is in mourning. She traveled to another house – and another – and another. Each household had tales of sorrow. Eventually, she forgot why she had started her journey. She became known, instead, as a wise woman who understood grief. She wanted her child back. What she needed was a deeper wisdom that connected her to others.
Now, to immerse ourselves more fully in this parable, we might ask how it would speak to us if we saw ourselves not as the widow but as the judge. We live in a complex world. What if part of the message of the parable is that God is more responsive to injustice than we are? It’s a sobering thought. It calls us to ask whose voices we discount. Who do we deem unworthy of our attention or care? How do we live with a lack of sensitivity to those who cry out for justice?
Again, Wink suggested we need to put ourselves into the story in a variety of ways. I wondered this week if maybe we shouldn’t do the same for God. We picture, often, God as the powerful authoritarian. And that has a profound influence on the way we view the world. We are drawn to the powerful. We dream of having our own power – power to make things in our lives the way we think they ought to be – and, perhaps, power to shape the world according to our own vision – however noble that vision may be. In the church, we look at and, perhaps, envy churches that seem to embody success evident in their size, programs, leadership, positions in the community, and finances. How often do we evaluate churches on the basis of their commitment to others? How often do we judge them on their mission and their giving beyond themselves?
When we are drawn to power and authority, perhaps it becomes easier to dismiss those who have no power and no authority – individuals and institutions.
Luke’s gospel often challenges our assumptions about who matters. He looks outside of expected norms to point us to God’s redeeming presence. This is the author who told us about the Good Samaritan. He relayed Jesus’ parable about the woman who searched for the lost coin. The least, the forgotten, the outsider are often portrayed as those who act in Godly ways. What if, in this parable, God is the one who comes seeking justice? What if God is the persistent voice in the face of injustice, demanding that wrongs be righted? What if God is the widow who won’t go away?
What we hear as pestering may, instead, be grace. God never gives up on us or on the world. God speaks to us through many, many voices, calling us to live into a deeper justice – and then calling us to be the widows in this world who pester the unhearing and uncaring powers that deny justice.
Buchanan noted that the early church, the first hearers of this parable, would have prayed for many things. He writes, “…it did not receive safety, protection from persecution…it did receive what it most needed: a sense of God’s loving presence and attentiveness, and the strength and resilience and fortitude it needed to survive.” And survive it did. Buchanan says, “Count on God to come down on the side of justice. Count on God to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice. Count on God to hear those who have nowhere else to turn. Count on God not always to grant your requests, but to hear, with loving, parental patience, the persistent prayers of your heart.” And I would add, “Count on God to pester you with a deeper awareness and compassion for God’s beloved world.”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Theologian Karl Barth said that the human response to God is, or should be, gratitude. It should not be fear and trembling, nor guilt or dread. We are invited to be thankful, thank-filled people when we encounter God. Author C.S. Lewis, who came to faith later in life, saw a connection between gratitude and well-being.: "I noticed how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most: while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise almost seems to be inner health made public."
Both the Hebrew Scripture lesson and the Gospel lesson for today speak of “illness” and “exile.” In the passage from Jeremiah it is the nation itself that is sick. Because of its illness, an illness born of faithlessness, its leaders have been sent into exile, to Babylon. They have been cut off from the Promised Land. And, because they have been exiled to this foreign land, they assume they have also been exiled from God. We have to remember that for many, gods were considered to be territory bound. Furthermore, the Promised Land itself was a sign of God’s presence, so when the people were sent from that Land, they felt that they had been sent from God’s presence.
In the Gospel lesson, we hear of ten lepers who had been cut off from their own communities because of their illness. The Rev. John Buchanan wrote: “[It is] difficult to exaggerate the social alienation and isolation of these ten men. People lived in dread of leprosy, a loosely defined term used to describe any skin blemish or eruption that looked suspicious..Skin blemishes could also be an indication of liturgical uncleanness. The result was that people with leprosy lived in total isolation: banished from their homes, from the loving touch of spouses, children, parents, from the faith community --so feared that even to cross the shadow of one with leprosy was to risk infection…Sometimes they banded together to become a small company of misery." They were in exile – not in a foreign country, but cut off, nonetheless.
Being in exile is a human experience that comes in many forms. It is that sense that we are disconnected from what matters, from what gives us life, what gives us meaning. The Israelites were cut off from their homeland – like many in our world. How many of us have family stories of those who left their homelands, for whatever reason, and found themselves in new places? How many wept and dreamed of going home? Today, we see and hear stories of those who are exiled from their homelands – driven out by war, political upheaval, religious or ethnic intolerance, poverty, or changing climates. For many it is a painful journey to leave lands that had been called home for generations.
There are other ways that people experience exile. As I read the story about lepers, I have to think about the experience of those who had AIDS in the early days. They were feared as the lepers were feared. Even medical personnel often refused to touch them. Families rejected them. Many died alone – cut off from almost everyone. How often does fear and ignorance become an excuse to isolate and dismiss those who are different?
Who are the “exiles” around us? Are they not the victims of bullying? Or the forgotten who are sick and homebound? Are they the ones who live among us, perpetually lonely? Is it the person who never quite fits in? Or maybe it’s the person who can’t cope with the world which is so rapidly changing.
The church, itself, is living in a sort of exile. What worked in the past doesn’t anymore. Many feel as if we’ve been cut off from our Promised Land, from the central place we once had in our own society. Often churches become “whiney” congregations that look for the quick fixes that will bring them back to the remembered “Promised Land.” “If only we could find the right pastor!” (This is a statement that tends to set pastors up for failure!) “The world is against us. They shouldn’t schedule conflicts for Sunday morning!” Or, “we need the right program that will attract the people again!”
"By the waters of Babylon: there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” the psalmist cried in Psalm 137. Being in exile was, in the Israelites’ eyes, a reason for weeping, for mourning. It is hard to imagine that they would have found any reason for thanksgiving. Yet, Jeremiah reassured them that although they had left the Promised Land, they could not be exiled from God. God had not been left behind. God was not tied to that land that they had been forced to leave. God was present with them. Therefore, they could, they should work for the well-being of Babylon. This exile would be long term so they were to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for [their] sons and give [their] daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters…seek the welfare of the city where [God] has sent you into exile, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
The theme of exile arises again and again in the Biblical witness. It is a sign of the world’s brokenness. However, it is not a sign of God’s abandonment. God meets us in exile. God goes with us into exile. God works for our healing and our transformation in the midst of exile. There is no place outside of the bounds of God’s mercy, God’s attention, and God’s concern.
Jeremiah told the Israelites to see the exile as a part of God’s plan for them. They would be in Babylon for several generations. They were not to wring their hands and complain. Instead, they were to work for the well-being of the city. It was an opportunity to bear witness to God in a new land, in the midst of a society that viewed them with disdain. Their presence in Babylon could be transformative for the city.
In the Gospel story, Jesus interacted with those that society had exiled. He offered them God’s mercy, evidenced in the physical healing that the ten experienced. The Samaritan, one who was doubly exiled from the faith community of Judaism, recognized the magnitude of the gift. He was more than physically healed. He was transformed. And, in response he demonstrated his gratitude.
Our liturgy has woven into it a reminder that we are to be a thankful people. Each Sunday, as we gather to celebrate our communal meal, we pray, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give our thanks and praise.” Then, the liturgy recites the reasons we are to be thankful. It is the “grace” we offer before we share the meal offered to us.
That attitude of thanksgiving is one that should permeate our existence as God’s people. What if we looked at the struggles of the church today not as a reason for despair, for blame, for whining, but as a God-given opportunity to be out in the world, building houses, planting gardens, working for the welfare of our communities? I shared on our Facebook page a cartoon that identified the difference between being a consumer church and a missional church. The consumer church member says, “I go to church.” The missional church member says, “I am the church.” The exiled Israelites were told by Jeremiah that they were sent by God. They had become missional.
We become missional when we work for the well-being of our community, of our nation and of the world. We are to minister to those who are living in exile – exile from homeland, exile from friends, exile from the communities in which they live. I saw a clip on TV this week about a young woman who experienced the loneliness of sitting by herself in the school lunchroom. She developed an app to connect people, for lunch! It is a simple thing that is making a difference. Younger children have led campaigns to install buddy or friendship benches on school playgrounds so that children who might otherwise be alone can find friends. (I wondered if this might be a project we could take on behalf of Gulfport Elementary.) There is a great story about a Florida Football player who, when visiting an elementary school, sat down with a boy who was alone. It changed that boy’s life! We need to look for ways of reaching out to those who are isolated by illness or age. The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew reminds us of our need to be aware of devastation and loss – particularly in Haiti.
The healed leper who returned recognized the fullness of what Jesus had given him. In that recognition, he experienced the full healing of his relationship with God who met him where he was. John Buchanan wrote, “Being grateful and saying thank you are absolutely at the heart of God’s hope for the human race and God’s intent for each if us.” A medical group launched a web site that says, “Boost your health with a dose of gratitude.”
Our gratitude flows from the stories and experiences of God who will not remain remote, but is present with us in all our and the world’s experiences of exile. Our gratitude needs to be shared in ways that bear witness to God’s presence in words and deeds. We live by faith. We are to be known by love – working in God’s beloved world, building and planting for its benefit, its healing, and its transformation.