Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, for in its welfare you will find your welfare..
Compared to last week’s readings, I really lucked out this week, with some truly lovely, non-troubling readings.
I want to start, however, with looking back to Psalm 137 from last week. They that carried us away to captivity, required of us a song. (Some of you may be hearing Bob Marley in the background.) How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
This one line is worth attending to week after week. In fact, I believe that most of the Old Testament is the answer to this question: how shall we sing God’s song in a strange land?
The context for last week’s psalm is the same context as the portion of Jeremiah we heard this morning.
It is hard for most of us to imagine the experience of exile, being forced by foreign invasion to leave all that we consider home. But imagine a conversation between a handful of these exiles and their God. They have a whole lot of questions:
“Hey, God, how do we sing to you, and how do we sing about you in this strange land? The Babylonians….they don’t exactly have the same values you taught us. How do we keep being your faithful people when we have been taken away from the land you gave us? The land that was to define us?
Here is the answer they get:
Build houses and live in them. Have a stake in the community, strange or not. Plant gardens. Put down roots. Take wives, and have sons and daughters. This is a multi-generational proposition. Multiply there in that strange land, and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf. In its welfare, you will find your welfare.
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.
This tells us a couple of things. First, God is with us, wherever we are. Second, we are not called to be separated from those who differ from us.
As long as there have been faith communities, there have been different views of what it means to be a person of faith in relation to a wider culture that does not share that faith. The great twentieth-century protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a wonderful book in 1951 called Christ and Culture. In it he articulated half a dozen ways that Christians practice faith in relation to the world around them. I’ll name just a few.
- What Niebuhr called “Christ against culture” represents separatist, inward-looking Christian communities who have no use for the world and assume the world has no use for them.
- Christ of Culture represents Christians who are so much in the world, it is hard to tell what makes them Christian. The Gospel of Prosperity might be a guiding principle for this group.
- Christ above culture is the view that religion is all about getting out of here and getting to heaven.
If we were to put a Christian spin on Jeremiah’s words to the exiles we might say that the Hebrews in Babylon were called to be what Niebuhr called Transformers of Culture, followers of God who find—and sing about—God’s presence in the present world where they live.
We, no less than the exiles in ancient Babylon, are called to be transformers of culture through nurturing the world around us and engaging the world as people of faith. We are called to find, enter, and proclaim the Kingdom of God right here, right now.
How do we do this? Let us leave the exiles where they are, planting gardens and having sons and daughters in Babylon, and look instead at the ten lepers whom Jesus heals in today’s gospel. As far as Jesus is concerned, they are foreigners, too. Samaritans, cultural and religious exiles in the circles where Jesus traveled. Yet he sang God’s song to them, a song of healing and wholeness. In their encounter with Jesus, the whole world became new.
The star of this morning’s gospel is the tenth leper. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.
Martin Luther, when asked to describe the true nature of worship, is said to have answered that worship is the tenth leper going back to Jesus to thank him. If we agree with Luther (which I do, a lot of the time), worship is how we keep in touch with transformation and healing. It is the well from which we drink deeply again and again, and where we give thanks. There is a reason why the long prayer we pray each week over the bread and wine is called The Great Thanksgiving.
What it means to be church, as followers of Jesus, is to build and to plant, and to give thanks. Weekly worship of the formal variety is not the only way we come to the well and give thanks—at least I hope it isn’t—but it is a way. When we come to this table to receive that great symbol of healing and transformation contained in a little piece of bread and a sip of wine, imagine ourselves as the tenth leper, saying: oh, yeah, this is now who I am. This is what I do as part of who I am in this new world. And as we go out into this week, into this world where we are planted, let’s ask ourselves: how do we become its transformation?