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Pentecost 21 Proper 23C RCL October 13, 2013

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Psalm 66:1-11

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-19

In our opening reading from Jeremiah, the worst has happened. King Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and the leaders have been deported to Babylon.

This was a devastating event. Think of being conquered, which is bad enough, but then having all your leaders taken away to a far country. Think of being the secular and religious leaders and being torn up by the roots and taken to a foreign land. This was a demoralizing policy.

Those who were living in Babylon were living among people who worshipped other gods, not their God, not our God. The society was different. The culture was alien to them. These are the thoughts and feelings expressed in Psalm  137: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. As for our harps, we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land. For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien land?”

Jeremiah has stayed in Jerusalem. He is trying to hold the people together, trying to encourage them to seek and do God’s will. He writes a letter to the leaders. He encourages them to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have families. In other words, he encourages them to prepare for the long haul in exile, not just a few months or a few years, but generations. He also calls the people to see the hand of God in this, to know that God is with them. Jeremiah tells the people to seek the well-being of Babylon and to pray to the Lord for the well-bring of Babylon and its people, because their lives are now knitted together.

The revered scholar and preacher Herbert O’Driscoll has some excellent observations on this letter of Jeremiah to the leaders in exile. He writes, “They are the very people who have made life difficult—even dangerous—for Jeremiah over the last few years. They have thoroughly vilified him, calling him everything from coward to subversive to traitor. Now they are in captivity a thousand miles away, and everything he predicted has come true. Yet, in this letter, there is not a trace of the aggravating phrase, ‘I told you so!’ This says much about the graciousness and decency of Jeremiah.” (O’Driscoll, The Word among Us, Year C, Volume 3, p 131.)

Jeremiah is giving such sound advice. Even when we think the worst has happened, we need to remember that God is with us. God is at work in the situation. We have to keep on keeping on. We have to keep on living—build homes, fill those homes with life and love and laughter. And God will bring us through it all.

The other thing that Jeremiah says is to work and pray for the welfare of the people and the city of Babylon. O’Driscoll and other scholars say that now, in this post-Christendom era, we, the Church, are in exile. We are in the midst of a land of many gods. This is no longer a Christian country. We are on the margins. We are on the outside. In a very real sense. The Church is in exile.

O’Driscoll and others suggest that, rather than looking sadly around us, we need to work for the well-being of those around us, because God loves all of us and we are all in this together.

O’Driscoll writes, “We in our own time are wrestling with the position of Christian faith in Western culture. This is a time of exile, of marginalization. It is tempting to lash out at the culture, to list its faults, to blame it for all sorts of ills. There may be good reason to do so, but such behavior achieves little. In stead, we are to seek the welfare of the city where God has sent us.” He adds that this includes participation in governance and in prayers for our communities, our state, our nation, and the world.

I was deeply moved to hear the Imam and the people of the Islamic Society of Vermont say very clearly and strongly that they oppose the violence being carried out by Muslim extremists. These are our brothers and sisters in the family of God. We have much in common. We are called to work for the good of all.

In the history of God’s people, this time of exile turned out to be highly productive. They studied the scriptures, intensified their prayer life,  and grew into a much clearer awareness of what it means to live as the people of God. This is often true of times of darkness in our individual and community life. We are forced to learn things that we would never learn without the challenges.

In our epistle for today, St, Paul reminds us that he has suffered all kinds of hardships in his ministry, but he is much like Jeremiah. He is resilient. He gets up and forges ahead and that is because, if we have died with Christ, we live with Christ. We are in new life.

As we turn to our gospel, we remember that being a leper in Jesus’ time was like being in exile among other people. You were unclean. People were not supposed to touch you, or they would become ritually unclean. You had to warn people that you were approaching so they could stay away from you. Yet these lepers somehow sense Jesus’ compassion and ask him for help. He tells them to go to the priests because the priests are the ones who can pronounce people to be clean. On the way, they are healed.

Only one comes back to thank Jesus, and that one is a Samaritan. Samaritans were cultural and religious lepers. They were the lowest of the low, beyond the pale, outcasts. So this man is a double leper. Yet he has a huge amount of faith and his faith has made him whole.

Jesus has no problem working for the well-being of these lepers. Like Jesus, Paul works for the well-being of everyone. May we do the same.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.