A Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Of the ten lepers that Jesus healed, nine of them went to the priests as Jesus told them, and the other one was a Samaritan who came back to Jesus, praising God. Jesus commended the Samaritan.
Now the Samaritans were a large minority group in Palestine in Jesus’ time. They shared a common heritage with the majority Jewish population, but there were religious and cultural differences and the two groups had almost nothing to do with one another. If you asked around, most would tell you that the Samaritans were lazy, dirty and dishonest and that their worship was idolatrous. Of course most had virtually no contact with Samaritans or their religion, and didn’t know that it was based exclusively on the observance of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Samaritans were foreigners in their own country, and not to be trusted.
So Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Perhaps Jesus is being a bit mischievous here. The other nine did do as Jesus told them. They did what was prescribed by the religious commandments and had a priest verify that they were healed. Jesus upset everyone’s expectations by praising the person who did not do what he told him to do. Everyone’s expectations and everyone’s descriptions of the Samaritan notwithstanding, Jesus told the Samaritan: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” The example of healing, of new life, of glorifying God and of faith, is the faith of this foreigner and outcast. God is free, and is not captive to our expectations.
Our Old Testament lesson is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was usually very critical of the rulers and aristocracy of Jerusalem and Judah. Sometimes they imprisoned him; they even tossed him in the bottom of an underground cistern for it. The words he conveyed from God criticized their pride and their complacency. He criticized their assumption that God would preserve them from their enemies no matter what.
Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and destroyed it. And he took away with him the rulers and aristocracy of Jerusalem and Judah into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem and he wrote them the letter that was read this morning.
The expectation of those proud people was, that if God did not save them and Jerusalem from the power of Nebuchadnezzar, they would be a people that was destroyed and humiliated; that they would have no life or prospects. They expected if God was real, their prosperity would be ensured, and things would stay the same as it had been.
But Nebuchadnezzar had prevailed and they were defeated, their houses and their temple were plundered and they were led away to a far-off foreign city.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote them this letter. The word from God was that it was God who sent them into exile, turning their expectations upside down. Their humiliation was not their death or the end of their people. Quite the opposite. “Build houses and live in them.” “Plant gardens and eat their produce.” “Take wives, have sons and daughters, have them marry and bear grandchildren.” In the reality of their desolation, God called them out of their self-absorption and self-pity into hope. Into life, even abundant life. Rather than worrying about the city that they had lost, God called them to seek the welfare of the city where they had been sent. In all this they did not lose their identity as the people of the God they had worshiped in Jerusalem, rather they became God’s people even more, they became that people even more richly.
Sometimes church people confuse their own expectations with the will of God. In fact, it is not that uncommon for people to conclude that when things are not going according to long-held expectations that somehow God has ceased to be there. A couple of weeks ago the Episcopal Church released an annual summary of statistics. Some might be surprised to learn that most of the indicators, such as church membership and attendance, were down, church-wide. Others might be aware that this has been the trend since about 1965.
So what do we say of a church that is half its former size and growing smaller by the year? Perhaps our leaders or our members could have done better, been more competent, and been more serious about their faith and commitment to support of the church. I could give you a list. But if everyone on that list did exactly as they might have, they would simply be like those nine lepers who Jesus healed and they went away to the priests—not like the Samaritan who returned to glorify God in Jesus.
Perhaps God is just not here, perhaps God is not giving us what we need. Which is to say, what we want and have come to expect. Certainly when I was on the East Coast, I was at places that clearly showed that at one time, not that long ago, Episcopalians comprised the rulers and aristocracy of America. Episcopalians quietly interpreted their well-being and the well-being of their church as the sign and condition of God’s presence and favor. But like the aristocracy of Jerusalem that was taken to Babylon, God is not finished with us yet. Indeed, he is just beginning. God’s love and faithfulness is not shown in comfort and wealth. It is shown in life and hope. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” Do not look back at what was or might have been—be God’s servant, God’s hands, the voice and touch of the respect of God for all God’s people, especially the foreigner or the ones so unlike yourself that you never expected to know or care for them. Build houses and plant gardens—and in living on their abundance, glorify God by living a fearless life of thanksgiving.
Listen to how today’s psalm ends:
Bless our God you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard;
Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.
For you, O God, have proved us;
You have tried us just as silver is tried.
You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon your backs.
You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water;
But you brought us out into a place of refreshment.