9th October 2016 - Hugh Perry
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
We read this morning Jeremiah’s message for the exiles which, as usual, is unpopular but realistic. ‘The exile is going to last a long time, make the best of it’. They are to build houses for their families and even pray for the city they have been taken to.
This is a message for all displaced persons and a message of peace. It is the message about making a positive contribution to a new situation rather than looking back to a past that is lost. It is the message that has guided the Jews in Diaspora ever since. Maurice Andrew says that the aims of the Council of Jewish Women in New Zealand are based on verse seven and the command to seek the peace of the city. It is a message of new beginnings after all sorts of disaster and disruption, even earthquakes.
Our reading follows straight on from last week’s reading about the minimal amount of faith to achieve great miracles and our place as servants or slaves of God.
Now ten lepers come to Jesus and he simply sends them to show themselves to the priest as if they were already healed and indeed they find they are.
So we have a practical working out of a small faith for a big miracle—the faith in Jesus and the faith in the system, showing themselves as healed to the confirms their faith in Jesus’ healing
The one who responds in gratitude is an example of the reformed mission motivation. We don’t do good works to earn salvation. We respond to the world in love as gratitude for the re-empowering love we receive from God.
In this episode Luke is previewing post resurrection events where Jesus own Jewish people do not respond but the gentiles come in thankfulness.
A CNN report dated 21st June this year quoted the United Nation’s refugee agency reporting that the number of displaced people is at its highest ever – surpassing even post-World War II numbers.
The total refugees at the end of 2015 reached 65.3 million – or one out of every 113 people on Earth. That amounts to a little under 1% of the earth's population. 
Those numbers arriving at the boarders put extreme pressure on stable nations and fuel fear, racism and xenophobia and contribute to outrageous acts of inhumanity. But being a refugee is also devastating and dehumanising for the refugees.
However New Zealand has been populated by refugees of one kind or another. In this land that never had people for thousands of years humanity has become the most destructive and invasive species.
Furthermore refugees are very much part of our faith journey. The Exodus journey is written as the formation of a people of God being called out of slavery and journeying through the wilderness to a land promised to their ancestors. However it does not take much cynical imagination to see it as a bunch of slaves escaping repression, spending forty years in the wilderness and forcing their way into a new home, much to the distress of the Canaanites.
The Babylonian exile also involved displaced persons but was the reverse of the Exodus journey. Just like Syria, and other small nations today, Jerusalem got involved in the struggle between two superpowers. Babylon attacked to create a buffer between them and Egypt. After they conquered Jerusalem they took whoever would be useful back to Babylon. Reading about this in the Bible it is easy to get the impression that all Jews were taken into Babylon but that was not the case and at least Jeremiah was left behind.
In many ways the Babylonian exile was like the Atlantic slave trade and resulted in the separated peoples who were genetically the same developing into different people by absorbing other cultures.
An interesting difference in the two groups of exiled slaves is that the Bible records that the a large portion of the Jerusalem exiles returned but most African Americans regard themselves today as American. African Americans are one group of displaced peoples in a nation of displaced peoples. From overcrowded islands and the slums of the British industrial revolution New Zealand has a similar story.
To all displaced people, even the refugees of Christchurch’s earthquakes and those people who are shut out of New Zealand’s so called ‘rock star economy’ verse five to seven of our Jeremiah reading offers profound advice.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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 Yahweh on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
The universal truth that makes those words of Jeremiah’s timeless prophecy is the truth that our life cannot be deferred and whatever circumstances we find ourselves in are circumstances that our life will be lived in. One of the things I like about the Old Testament stories is that no matter what the circumstances are they are seen as part of God’s plan.
I am not enthusiastic about the concept that bad things are seen as divine punishment but even those storys offer hope for the future. This reading from Jeremiah is a case in point where God delivered them into the hands of the Babylonians. But Jeremiah’s vision is that they will return and be a more mature people because of it.
Paul puts this in a Christian context when writing about the change Christ makes in people’s lives. ‘So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new’. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
That was the experience of the ten lepers in our Gospel reading. They were locked in their past, isolated from their community by their most feared disease, which in biblical times covered a number of skin infections. Even the more precisely defined Hansen's disease is not as infectious as its mythology suggests. But most significant is the fact that leprosy is a disease of poverty. Even today when Hansen’s disease is easily treated with antibiotics the disfiguring caused by unfelt minor accidents remains and fearful communities isolate disfigured people.
We can see from our Gospel reading that there was a process for re-assimilating people back into the community who had suffered, but were cured, of some form of leprosy. They went and showed themselves to the priests at the temple who would declare them clean if that was the case. Presumably they would have to purchase an animal at the temple and sacrifice it as a thank offering because that was how the Temple raised its funds.
This story has been used over and over again, particularly with children, as a morality tale to stress the importance of saying thank you. However, remembering that Jeremiah and presumably others were not taken into exile in Babylon we can again make the point that those taken into exile and those left behind developed differently.
Both those left behind and those in exile followed Jeremiah’s advice and got on with their lives in their new circumstances. With a change in Assyrian policy Nehemiah and Ezra were sent back to rebuild the city and establish the temple faith. Nehemiah was sent back as governor which would indicate that rebuilding the city and re-establishing the temple faith facilitated the Assyrian empire’s revenue gathering activities. At the time of Jesus the Temple and its civic administration served the interests of the Roman Empire in much the same way. However it was also a focus of radical nationalism which is why the Romans eventually destroyed it. Also at the time of Jesus the descendants of those not taken into exile were called Samaritans. Apart from their mixed race background they had developed alternative worship sites because the Babylonians had destroyed the temple. Those descended from the exiled Jews focused on racial purity and a religion centred on the restored Temple and they despised the Samaritans for their different culture. Ironically both cultures, Jews and Samaritans arose from taking Jeremiah’s advice and making the most of their post invasion circumstances.
Returning to the ten lepers we can see that the nine went to the Temple as Jesus instructed because that was their culture. Furthermore Jesus instructed them to go to the Temple because that was also the right response to healing in his culture. The nine lepers were not ungrateful of Jesus’ healing but followed Jesus instruction to the letter because, like Jesus, they were loyal and orthodox Jews.
The Samaritan did not go to the Temple because Samaritans did not worship at the Temple. Samaritans were not part of the temple cult and not welcome at the Temple.
This is where Luke, writing somewhere around eighty to one hundred AD, uses the story to stress his theological understand of the meaning of Jesus.
The Samaritan can’t thank God in the Temple so he comes to Jesus to thank God. Luke has made the link between Jesus and God; Christ is the new temple, the new access to God
Luke tells us that the tenth leper came and prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Then Luke has Jesus respond saying; ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, were are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’(Luke 17:17,18)
By the time Luke wrote this passage foreigners had become a big part of what was becoming the church. Not just Samaritan’s but Romans, Greeks, Ethiopians along with those other ancient people mentioned in the Acts Pentecost account.
The nine went as instructed to the temple but the foreigner, the Samaritan could not. After the destruction of the temple nobody could go to the temple to give thanks and praise to God. Some, both Jews and foreigners, came to God through the image of God they found in the stories of Jesus and the presence of the Risen Christ within them and around them.
That of course is where we fit into both these readings. Our earthquakes exiled us from the Christchurch we knew and loved. In fact each new day exiles us from something that gave us security and challenges us with something new.
When I was little various vendors brought vegetables fish and milk to our street. Now most of us find security in going to the supermarket and filling the trolley with our weekly needs. Towards the end of her life my aunt couldn’t get to the supermarket so she went to the supermarket’s website and ordered her groceries, paid for them through online banking and the groceries were delivered to her.
Jeremiah’s faith tells us that life moves on from even the most unimaginable calamities and our calling as people and as peoples is to fully live in the new world that opens to us.
Jeremiah also tells us that we can’t base our faith and science on the understanding of the past. We can’t go back and live the life that Jesus lived. But Paul reminds us that accepting Christ makes us a new creation. Everything that is old may well have passed away but equally everything has been made new. Our challenge is to be like the writers of Old Testament and see God in both the changes and the new world we find ourselves in. To accept and live in whatever the new now may be for us.
By living in the now, the Christ filled now, we become part of the transformation of our world by the way we are transformed.