Seek the welfare of the city

A note from Jamie Howison: Every year when we come to the Canadian Thanksgiving  long weekend, I stand in the midst of all of the autumn harvest decorations that our host congregation of All Saints’ has placed out, and steadfastly resist preaching a Thanksgiving sermon. The Canadian statutory holiday called Thanksgiving may have some faith-based origins, but it is now primarily a secular holiday in which we are all expected to express a general thankfulness…  thankfulness to whom is not entirely clear. And so with a hint of stubbornness I always just press pass the secular holiday, and preach the appointed lectionary readings for the day. However, given the gospel reading appointed for Sunday – the story of the gratitude of the Samaritan leper healed by Jesus – it would have been a bit pig-headed to not speak about thankfulness… In a nice twist of irony, the people from the All Saints’ congregation had decided to take down all of their nice decorations, and so for what was probably my first-ever Thanksgiving sermon I didn’t have the pumpkin and wheat sheaf backdrop.

L

uke tells the story of how during his travels Jesus encounters a group of ten lepers, people afflicted with a skin condition that has resulted in their becoming outcasts. They cry out for mercy, and without any fanfare he sends them off to show themselves to the priests; to the ones who have the authority to declare them cleansed and therefore eligible to return to life in society. As they go on their way – no doubt wondering what the point was, and thinking that maybe Jesus’ reputation as a healer was a bit exaggerated – they suddenly realize they had been made clean. Nine of them go dashing off to find the priest, while one turns around and heads back to find Jesus. Shouting and praising God, he throws himself down at Jesus’ feet, and thanks him. This one, Luke tells us, was a Samaritan.

Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Now, there are a few interesting little observations to be made here. First off, it is probably fair to ask why Jesus would have expected the nine Jews who had been healed to come back to give thanks. After all, hadn’t he told them to go and show themselves to the priest? At least in a ritual sense, they weren’t really clean until they’d received the word from the priest.

It makes some sense that the Samaritan didn’t bother with the priests. Sure, they might have been able to say that he was no longer leprous, but in their eyes he was still not clean, and never could be; he was a Samaritan.

So he comes dancing back, utterly delighted in the new life he’s been given, and quite clear as to what he needs to do. He praises God, and gives thanks to Jesus; he recognizes both the source and the agent of his healing.

And then there is this one other line that Jesus speaks to him: ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ Really? Does that mean that the nine Jews who had been cleansed, and who were probably at that minute bouncing up and down at the priest’s door hardly able to contain their delight, were less healed? Were they just in remission, about to break out in leprous sore again? No.

I really appreciate what N.T. Wright has to say about the faith of the Samaritan: “(F)aith here means not just any old belief, any generally religious attitude to life, but the belief that the God of life and death is at work in and through Jesus…” The Samaritan comes back because he has recognized something in this experience, and he needs to express praise and thanks. As the outsider to Judaism, he may actually be uniquely situated to seeing past the rituals regarding purity, and to engage both the gift and the giver.

And when Jesus says to him, “your faith has made you well,” I think he’s actually speaking less to the healing or cleansing of the leprosy, and more to the way in which this man’s response has made him more “whole.” The gift of cleansing is no less there for the nine Jews, but in the case of the Samaritan he has really encountered the Giver, the Lord, and in that he is made well. His offering of thanks is not the general gratitude of a secular Thanksgiving long weekend, but is rather a deep engagement of faith with gratitude.

Deep engagement of another kind is what is at stake in this evening’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah. Whereas with the healing of the Samaritan leper the deep engagement comes in a flash – it is this one, great transformative moment of release and realization – Jeremiah is writing to a community that is going to need to carry out its deep engagement in the long haul. Completely uprooted and displaced, the community to which Jeremiah writes is living far, far from their beloved promised land, scratching out a living in Babylonian prison ghettos; think ancient world refugee camps, and you’ll get something of the picture. Beyond having survived the long march from home into this horrid place, there is little for which to be thankful.

And then this letter arrives from Jeremiah, who is still back at home in a Jerusalem that is soon to be flattened by the Babylonian army:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 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. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

It would have been very tempting to either forsake your Jewish identity and try to become a Babylonian (and many probably did), or to attempt to keep your head low and simply survive there in that place. Lorne Penner has told me about a kind of an ethic that characterized the approach some of the Anabaptist groups adopted in their way of settling into a new country, into a strange land – “The quiet in the land.” It basically says to work hard, keep your head low, avoid too much engagement with the culture around you, though when need be use it to your advantage… and always exercise caution… It is an ethic informed by the sad history of having been persecuted over the centuries; in the low countries, in Prussia, in Russia.

Hard not to think that you should be cautious – very cautious – in dealing with the culture of the strange land, whether that be the Canadian prairies for the Mennonites or the prison ghettos for those exiled Jews. Maybe you can provisionally settle in, but to seek the well being of this new place? To pray for it?

And speaking of life in a strange land, what of the increasingly secularized and consumption-driven culture in which we live? A society in which the kinds of things that Jeremiah and Jesus embodied sound increasingly out of sync with the way the society carries out its life. You must not give up, Jeremiah is saying, and you cannot opt out. There in that strange land, you must find ways to be fully engaged. Seek its welfare, pray for it, engage that strange city, and be for it leavening yeast. And do that for as many generations as it takes, for in its well-being you will find your well-being.

I think it is important on this weekend, when that word ‘thanksgiving’ is floating maybe a bit too easily and loosely in the cultural air, to be reminded of both the flash of grace and mercy given the Samaritan and of the long-haul challenge being placed before a community in captivity. In the former, we see a deep connection between faith and wholeness, and one which makes the offering of thanks seem so very obvious and logical. In the latter, we are witness to the challenge to live the faith/wholeness connection as a discipline, as way of being in the world, and in a manner that includes and incorporates those beyond our walls. For those outside of us are also us… which is certainly one of the things that Samaritan discovered in his encounter with Jesus.

Amen.

Jamie Howison

One Response to Seek the welfare of the city

  1. byron says:

    Thanks Jamie.
    I sometimes give some thought to the use of Samaritans in Christs’ travels and teachings. I suppose for a long time I felt I was one, and this thought reminds me that those Christians who reached out to me asking nothing in return have remained in my life for decades. Someday I hope to lose my dismay and disappointment for those who did have expectations I could not meet, and make them my Samaritans.

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