NRSV JEREMIAH 29:1, 4-7
29 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.
4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.
NRSV LUKE 17:11-19
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
On the surface this sounds like a slam dunk for a sermon – just be thankful. If you are in difficult surroundings, say thank you and smile. If you have been given something nice, make sure you say thank you. After all, some of us grew up with Captain Kangaroo more than Mr. Rogers, and the Captain was always telling us that the magic words were: Please and thank you.
Of course that’s true. One should always be thankful. One should always say thank you. And this being Stewardship Dedication Sunday – or Commitment Sunday – we do say ‘thank you’ to all of you who made commitments of pledges for 2020. You have dared to commit to supporting the ministry of this church for the year ahead, not really knowing what the year holds for you. But you have been asked to make your pledges so we can plan for that year, and many of you have done so. Others of you don’t make it a habit of pledging, but you give, often regularly and very faithfully. We thank you, too. Thanks are in order.
I think we also want to give thanks for the brave men who have been on our roof over the last two weeks. Dickie Cralle and Al Buczak – one a member and the other might as well be – have arranged for a very nice lift to take the men up onto the roof for some repair and paint work. Last week they decided that while they were at it they would take on the steeple as well. The steeple, which has not had a real good, solid paint job since anyone can remember. It may look a little rough right now with all the peeling and priming, but it will look nice eventually. We thank all of them for taking such good care of our building. And for not letting the preacher, who is severely handy-man challenged, anywhere near the lift or a paint can.
But, still, you have to wonder – is that all that is going on here? Is Jesus just telling us that it is nice to say thank you, because that’s what this one guy did while the others went running off to the priests to show themselves, to get back into the good graces of the synagogue and the community? After all, they were just doing what Jesus told them to do. Why did this other guy get praise from Jesus – just because he said ‘thank you’?
Maybe there was something else going on behind the thank you. Something that Jesus saw that empowered him to say, “Your faith has made you well,” when the other guys were healed, too. What’s the difference?
For one thing, the grateful and healed leper was a Samaritan. We know all about how the Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along; the Samaritans, that group of people who were really just a bunch of half-breeds, people who had been moved into that part of Israel after the Assyrians laid waste to the northern kingdom in 722 BCE. People who had their own ways of doing things; their own ways of celebrating religion; their own center of faith (Mount Gerizim as opposed to Jerusalem). They knew they were different, they knew they were looked down upon by the proper, devout Jews, the descendants of those who had returned from the Babylonian exile, those who could claim special status as the ‘real’ recipients of the Covenant of God.
There is of course something special about Samaritans, other than the fact that they were looked down upon by the Jews of Jesus’ time. Something special that Luke seems to emphasize. They were outsiders. Luke was writing to another group of outsiders, the Greek–Christians, people who may or may not have been part of the Jewish community but people who probably felt left out of a lot of things. In the early church there was a noticeable tension between Hebrew-Christians – those who had grown up in the covenantal tradition – and Greek-Christians, those who had not; those whom others considered outsiders. Especially in Luke’s Gospel it is the outsiders who seem to get who Jesus is and what he is about more than the proper insiders – especially the Samaritans. Because they are outsiders Luke has a special insight given through Samaritans. Like here – “Were there not ten who were healed?” Jesus asks. “And how come only one came back to say thank you, this foreigner.” This Samaritan. This one who has the face of other outsiders in our time – this illegal immigrant. This white nationalist. This gay person. This Arab terrorist. This transgendered person.
Call them whatever you want, whatever constitutes the ultimate outsider for you. But give them credit – the outsider is very often, especially in Luke, the one who gets it. Not just healing, they were all healed. And the others did what they were told to do, the proper thing. But this one person, this outsider, the last person you would have expected it from is the one who feels the presence of God in the healing. He is so filled with gratitude that he has to come back and give thanks for the healing, thanks for the restoration – not just of body but of soul, of being back into the community, back into life. This Samaritan is not just someone who says ‘thank you.’ He is someone who is filled with thanksgiving, thanksgiving to the One who gave the gift, and not just that he is off the hook from this illness. He knows where this gift comes from. Not from himself. So he is thankful to the Giver.
That dimension of the outsider as being the one who is the means by which God’s grace is extended is also seen in the prophecy of Jeremiah, written some 500 years before Jesus’ time. This was a difficult period for the people of Israel – the top elements of the society, the best of the best had been carted off to Babylon in the first exile. This was ten years before the whole city was devastated and even more people went into exile. In that time, the people who were in Babylon thought this exile thing wouldn’t last long; God would soon send a rescuer to pull them out and bring them home. But there was another line of thinking, probably more from those left behind in Jerusalem: that the folks in Babylon were not the best but the worst in Israel, and that was why they were in exile.
To point out the fallacy of both of those opinions, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah. It’s a word that says you are going to be there a while so you might as well settle down and make the best of it. To those who thought or were told they were more evil than anyone else Jeremiah says that God wants them to enjoy being in families; multiply, have sons and daughters, give them in marriage, enjoy all of the wonders of human life, even it if is in exile.
There are those of our time who like to move on in the 29th chapter and point out that wonderful verse that says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for your harm.” Sure, it’s easy to see that as God blessing us righteous individuals in these words. But that is not the original meaning. These are words for the community as a whole. This is not individual salvation or blessing; this is a call to be a blessing where you are, with the people you are with – whether they are believers or not, whether they are people you like or not, whether they are the righteous or not.
Seek the welfare of the city into which I have placed you, says the Lord, and pray to the Lord on its behalf. For in their welfare will be your welfare.
When I was serving as a pastor of an inner city church in Lansing, Michigan, I heard that verse a lot – in conferences on urban ministry, in reflections about what it meant to be called to such a place. This context is different but the call is still there – for me, for you, for this church. Seek the welfare of the place where I have sent you, says the Lord.
Then there is the rest of that – not just any place but the place where I have sent you into exile, says the Lord. We may wonder about that. We haven’t been sent into exile. We love it here. Some of us have grown up here. Some of us have families who have lived here going back generations. Nobody carted us off to this place.
But without sounding too ‘poor me’ about it, the church is in a bit of an exile these days. We are not growing like we used to, our influence is not very big these days, people don’t care what the church says about the hot button issues of our time. Some people just blow the church off as being irrelevant. In some cases the church herself has brought this on by not living out the call to be people of the Good News. We have badgered, we have ignored, we have sometimes taken people for granted. But that is not because we are bad people. We are just people, who get it right sometimes and get it wrong sometimes.
But the good news in all of this is that God calls on us to be a blessing where we are, with the people God has sent us to. We plant seeds – seeds of love, of peace, of mercy, of justice. You never can tell how those seeds will take root and grow. You never can tell how God is going to work through you or this church and bring about the Kingdom of God in someone’s life. All we are called to do is to seek the welfare not just of this church but of this town and the places where God has sent us. To pray for the welfare of those around us. In their welfare is our welfare. As they are blessed, so we will be blessed.
Our son Peter used to be a member of the First Christian Church of Los Angeles, a United Church of Christ congregation. We went to worship with him a couple of times and noted that on the cover of their newsletter was a picture of their pastor wearing all of his preaching regalia, arms outstretched, with the church in the background. What made this picture so unusual was that he was standing in the middle of a crosswalk in one of the busy intersections of that metropolis. In that picture you can see cars moving past him, and people of all racial and ethnic traditions around him, some with bemused looks on their faces, like what is this church guy doing out here in the middle of the street?
What he was doing was giving the city in which he and his church had been planted a blessing. I think that’s what we are called to do, too – maybe not stand out in the middle of Main Street or West Third and hold up traffic; but be a blessing here. Go to Town Council meetings, be a part of the Chamber of Commerce, get involved with the schools, visit the Moton Museum and work toward a more just community. We are called to be a blessing to all people – but especially to “them.” The people you may not have considered being a blessing to before. Because they may be the very people God most wants you to bless.
And that, folks, is really something to be thankful for. Amen.