Preached on Sunday, 9.10.16
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
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.
The people of Israel – or, at least, some of them (Jeremiah, for example, is still in Jerusalem) – are in exile in Babylon, so today’s readings examine the nature of the relationship between the community of faith and the community that surrounds it. And they do so by asking the community of faith to re-examine how it sees not only the wider society but also itself. ‘Here,’ says the writer to the Hebrews, ‘we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ And the people of faith have often thought in that way about the place in which they are set – it’s not really for us; it’s only temporary. And that way of thinking has led sometimes to two kinds of reaction.
One reaction is to draw a sharp distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’, between the profane world which we have to put up with for now, and the sacred world, which is our real home – and within which all those people we don’t approve of, or with whom we disagree, have no place. The other reaction is to seek to find somewhere where the ways of the community of faith can be followed without interruption or distraction. So people went to the New World seeking to create their own societies free from those who would limit them, or oppose them, or mock them – a place where the world could be stopped, where the faith could get off. And people have sought in many places to create nations built around ‘our’ ways, where even those who did not see the world ‘our’ way would at least have to go along with that way – so not only the Puritans in New England, but also the Covenanters in Scotland, or the ultra-orthodox or the Zionists in Israel, or the Taliban in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
There have been those communities of faith that have understood themselves to be cut off from their spiritual and religious roots, drying up under an alien sun, desperate to be where their life could be easier, more faithful, more godly – ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song,’ they have asked, ‘in a strange land?’ They have felt themselves to be strangers, foreigners, sojourners, aliens, because they feel they do not belong – they are exiles, pining for a return to their true home. And, until that return can be effected, they are lost, rudderless, drifting in a featureless sea, with no map, no compass, and no motor. And Jeremiah writes to the exiles in Babylon, by whose rivers the people of Israel have sat down and wept, and says: ‘for goodness sake!’
Jeremiah questions all the assumptions that the people of faith had been going on, all the ways in which they presumed that God worked – and works. Why do you think, he asks them, that if things are not going the way you wanted or expected, that that means that God has forgotten you, or abandoned you? Might it not just be, he says, that how things are, where you are, what your life is like, all that is the doing and the will of God? Have you perhaps, he asks, totally misunderstood your place in the world, your place in the society, your place in God’s heart and purposes? And might it be that you have also failed to understand the place in God’s heart of those who are not part of the visible community of faith?
What comes from Jeremiah’s letter is the understanding that we are all tied in together; there is no way we can separate ourselves from those around us – the welfare of society cannot be divided up without damaging the welfare of the whole society. So the prophet tells them to settle down, to fit in, to mix in, to look after and look out for one another – not just a select few, not only the ones you find congenial – this is about how everyone and everything fit together, and depend on one another:
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.
God has put you here, he says, so don’t appeal to God for something else. Don’t reduce God or God’s love to the boundaries of your love or your concern; don’t confine God within your horizons. And yet people of faith all over the world, and all through the ages, have insisted on doing just that: on bringing God down to their level, tying God in to their sectional, sectarian interests – and what kind of God would that be? How could we worship a God whose horizons were no broader than ours? Why do we insist again and again on confining God, restricting God, believing in a God who is only interested in us, and those who agree with us?
So let’s take those thoughts and those questions, let’s take the words of Jeremiah, and put all that to work on the story we heard from Luke’s Gospel. Let’s see what looking through that particular lens does to how we see and interpret Jesus’ actions and words.
In the story we find Jesus far from the centre of things, the region between Samaria and Galilee. The Samaritans, as we all remember, are regarded by the Jews of Jesus’ time as beyond consideration; they are those who have separated themselves, gone another way. Galilee is thought of by those in Jerusalem as people from ‘the sticks’; remember how in the account of the Day of Pentecost the word ‘Galilean’ is used to mean someone who can’t possibly know anything. So Jesus is in the middle of nowhere – even perhaps in the space between nowheres, and he encounters those who are regarded as nothing, as non-people.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, but he is not there yet; just as the people of Israel in exile in Babylon wish they were in Jerusalem but they are not. And, like those in Babylon, Jesus has to deal with life as he finds it, deal with those by whom he is surrounded, live the life he has been given. And so, at this particular moment, he finds himself faced by those the rest of society would rather not see; he hears the cries of those whose voices others have learned to tune out. And he lives in and for that moment, he acts with and for those people. And lepers, cast out and exiled from the life they had once known, and the people they had once loved – and who had once loved them – find themselves restored and acceptable. Their exile is over.
And, in the midst of the relief and the rejoicing, one returns to give thanks; one, who is a foreigner, comes back to acknowledge the gift of new life that is now his. And here is part of an interpretation of that part of the story from a friend and colleague in the ministry of the Church of Scotland – an interpretation with some of whose implications I am going to disagree:
Perhaps the nine who didn’t return justified their action as “following orders”. They wanted to put the nightmare of their experience as outsiders behind them. But with every step they took they got further from Jesus. They got healing but they didn’t find life and the blessing they received meant that they felt they needed Jesus even less than before. What a warning! Only one takes time to stop and return to Jesus. He was no doubt as keen as the rest to re-establish themselves with their family and friends. His response is one of thankfulness but it is far more than mere politeness as is shown by his public prostration at Jesus’ feet. What marks him out is not only that he alone returned of the ten who were healed but of all of them, he was the only foreigner. We must remember that the people who respond to Christ are not always those we expect. The question of “taking things for granted” of “living out your own agenda” is left hanging in the air and clearly has wider application than this incident. Taking things for granted is a particular temptation for those who have grown up in the church. There are always good reasons for not taking time to worship God and they are usually on closer examination less good than they first appear.
The question that is raised by looking at this passage, this story, is one that has sometimes been described as ‘the economy of salvation’ – how does salvation work? how does God work to save us? and, maybe, what is the role of the church in that divine will and way? It also raises for us the question of who it is that God loves and saves. In the interpretation I just read, only the one who returns ends up ‘near’ Jesus; the others are walking away, getting further away, with no need of Jesus because their healing is accomplished. The question raised then is not about who is saved or who is loved, but who is in the church – and about why more people don’t come to church.
I think that’s the wrong question. I think that this individualistic way of understanding can end up tying us in knots, and it can draw us into thinking of ourselves as living in exile far from where we should be, unable to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. It’s the kind of thinking that starts us wishing for other lands, more congenial places – and I don’t think that that’s where my colleague wants us to be, or to wish to be. Rather, it seems to me, we need to focus not on who or how many come to church, but on what this story tells us of the role of the church.
And the key is this: only one out of the ten returns to give thanks for his healing – but all ten are healed, and it does not say that they do not find life. Failing to return does not deprive of them of their healing – they have been ‘saved’ by Jesus from their exile, restored to their families, their friends, their jobs, their place in life. Jesus has made them whole and that is a free gift, a gift which will not be taken away. One returns; but that return does not only bring thanks for an individual healing – that return brings thanks for healing, thanks for restoration, thanks for salvation for the whole community. Because remember that the restoration that has been effected is not simply even for those ten, but for all those from whom they have been taken by the shattering shame and the dreadful disfigurement of the disease.
The church does not live in exile in a strange and hostile land. The church lives and breathes to give thanks to God for the divine love which is for all people, whether or not they feel the need to give thanks themselves, whether or not they feel the need even occasionally to go to church to do it. Jeremiah speaks to us when he writes to those in Babylon: settle down, join in the life of the world, put down roots, make your place and your home with those by whom God has surrounded you. Work for their welfare, not just your own; give thanks for their blessings, not just your own; think of healing as communal, not only individual. You are all in this together, because God has put you here together. So don’t think of yourselves as ‘different’ or ‘special’ or ‘especially loved’; praise the God who loves you all, cares for you all, and the one who works through you for the welfare of all the city, so that through you the city of God may yet be built and revealed in all God’s glory.
The readings in the service were: