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.