St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: 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.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
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.
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.
2 Timothy 2:8-15
A portion of today’s reading: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-- that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory..."
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. 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. And he 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."
If I asked each and every one of you what would be good news to you, I would probably get as many answers as there are people. Plus a few more for those who could not make up their mind.
God knows us. God knows the number of hairs on our heads, so God definitely knows our needs and our wants. In that I have no doubt.
When someone hands me a hot dog, they probably know I need mustard. If someone gives me a sandwich, they probably know I need something to drink with it. When times are good, what is good is predictable. What we need is predictable.
When I waited tables I needed to anticipate the guests’ needs before they had them, and when I did, I got great tips. They thought I was a mind-reader at times, when I did it well. Sometimes my tips showed that I did not. Good News for someone for whom things are going great is to let the good times roll. Keep on keeping on.
But today we are given some images of when times are dark, when things are going badly, and where is the Good News then? When we are in the middle of the storms of life, too often we have no idea which direction to head. We have no clue where to start, or what to ask for when we get help. But in all our stories, we see God knows! Some days, God only knows where the Good News is. In each of the portraits painted of following God in dark times from today’s readings, we see God knows the needs and paves the path for them to be made real.
I love the reading from Jeremiah. Richard joked with me the other day about having to read the Jeremiah passage at two services in a row, and about how dark they are. And often Jeremiah is exactly that. Judgment. Wrath. Coming Destruction. But when those passages are seen in isolation, it is easy to get a negative view of Jeremiah. But then we get to today’s reading. And Jeremiah is all about having hope.
Babylon had come in and conquered God’s people. They were stripped of their homes and properties. Last week’s Psalm reading was that horrible song calling to have the Babylonian babies smashed on rocks God’s people were so mad and vengeful. (As bad as it was, at least they were honest with God in their prayers. And that is what God wants, in my opinion!)
But what does Jeremiah say to those who have lost everything: family farms, generations of memories, the land God promised to them when they came out of Egypt? We will get to that.
What made it even more egregious was that they were so tied to the land in their theology they thought that God would only hear their prayers if they drug a bag of dirt with them when they went off into Exile! But the smiting of Psalm 137 and the judgment of much of Jeremiah disperses here in Jeremiah 29. Here, instead of judgment, Jeremiah is saying, “Have Hope! Be Generous! Live Life!” To sum it up, Grow Where You Are Planted. It may sound cliche, but make Lemonade from the Lemons of Life. Or to quote him exactly:
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.When things are hard and dark, do not give up on God. In fact one of the bravest and most counter-intuitive acts in Dark Days is too live a life of Faith and Hope.
It is human nature to avoid change. We think that the status quo is safe, and we cling so closely to what we have Now, then we are not looking to where we are headed. George Burns and Gracie Allen were partners in comedy and in life. When she died in 1964 she is said to have told George to keep living his life. “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Jeremiah is saying that to his contemporaries and to us today.
- When things look hopeless, Have Hope.
- When we are scared, Fear Not.
- When we want to call it quits, Trust in God.
Another image from today’s readings, St. Paul says to St. Timothy, “I am in Chains, but the Gospel is NOT!” St. Paul even rejoices that he can share the Gospel and spread the faith. That is his highest and best calling.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus says to the Lepers, “Go show yourself to the Priest.” Now to show how hopeful that this is, to be declared clean and able to re-enter society, a priest had to make a declaration. And here is a moment of faith over senses. Jesus has not healed them... YET. Jesus says, “Go to the Priest.” And on the way, one of the 10 looks down. In Hope, in Faith, beyond all Common Sense, he looks down and sees that he has been healed.
That is a huge shift when you have set your mind to a never-ending reality. His was a death sentence, and he had no expectation for it to be anything else, ever. But of all those who were sent to the priest, this one, the single one did NOT DO WHAT JESUS SAID TO DO. He went back to Jesus, he went back to the one who had sent him away. He went back to give thanks, thanks to Jesus and thanks to God!
Jesus knew the way this young Samaritan man needed to go. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Faith is stepping out even when we do not know where our foot will fall. Faith is believing that our footing will be solid even when our path forward is dark.
St. Paul eventually was killed while imprisoned in Rome, but the Gospel he preached kept going, and we are probably here in Church today from the work he did. St. Paul had faith in the God who called and saved him, and in the power of the Gospel to seek and save the Lost.
The Babylonian Exile still was long and hard, but after a few generations God brought them home. Jeremiah’s family was able to come back and claim the land he bought in the previous week’s lectionary reading. And because of that Exile, Synagogues, Hebrew houses of prayer, were begun, and because of that we still have synagogues with us more than 1900 years later after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed! The Hebrew faith is alive and well to this day. They kept the Faith of the Fathers and Mothers and God honored that.
We are called to have faith, too. When disease and darkness surrounds us, and we cannot imagine the light dawning, know that the God who was with you in the light is with you in the dark. And the light will come. We cannot see how. We may not know why. But he who began this work of you, is faithful to complete it. Now matter what we face, God is with us.
This is hard work I am asking you to do. This is Faith Work. To act in belief of things unseen, to defy what our days and times are screaming at us. “Fear, fear, fear!” But in closing I want to zero in on a sentence we skim over, but I think that that is where the Good News lies for most of us. After Jesus sends the lepers to the priest, it says this: “And as they went, they were made clean.”
In the living of our days, that is where I think our calling lies. It is the stepping out that we find our faith, it is in meeting God over the horizon that we see where God would have us be all along.
In a book I am reading about the Apollo missions to the moon, one of the greatest technical feats that had to be tested, proven, and successful was trying to get two vehicles in space to be able to rendezvous. There are no road signs or rest stops in space. We are trapped in 2-dimensional thinking, living in a world of flat maps and roads. The engineers had to think in 3-dimensional ways, trusting in equations and algorithms to make the impossible happen. You do not want to sit and wait where you are. You cannot. Because whether you feel it or not, in your spaceship you are hurtling ahead, maybe even tens of thousands of miles per hour. So is the ship you are trying to meet up with. So it is pointless spending a lot of time zeroing in on where you are, or where they are. Spend your time and energy on where they are heading, and where you need to head to be where they are going to be. That is the hard-to-envision work of outer space rendezvous. It is aiming two bullets to meet up over the horizon. It is often the same with our faith.
God is preparing for you to meet up beyond what we can see, beyond what we can comprehend. God has done the math, worked out the trajectories, and what is over there is far better than you could hope or imagine. “And as they went, they were made clean.”
God knew the trajectories of Israel going off into Babylon, how they would come home and flourish and that they would set up a system that would last millennia. God knew the trajectory of St. Paul, and where his work would take the faith, even right here to Beverly Road. And God knew the trajectory of the lepers.
And what may be Good News for us today, God knows our trajectories, and is preparing even now for what will be. May we have the courage to have Faithful Trajectories, and in so doing shine a light in these days we find ourselves in. Lead Holy Spirit, even into the Depths of God. Amen.