October 10, 2010
A year ago on this Sunday, the last one before Recommitment Sunday, Kate Cudlipp stood here and, in her sermon, reminded us of the questions we’ve been asked to reflect on during this season:
- What am I being called to offer to God and God’s creation?
- How can being a part of Seekers Church support my response to God’s call?
- What do I need from and through this community in order to deepen my commitment to Christ?
So, a year ago you had a longtime Steward of this church, one of the Servant Leadership Team, leading you in this reflection, and now you have me, a newcomer who has yet to make her first public commitment to Seekers Church. I think this is pretty daring of you, and I appreciate your trust. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to the Lord our God, my strength and my salvation.
For the past several weeks, we have been reading from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet of the Exile, and I’d like to review briefly what that was about.
When David became king of Israel, he gathered all the people from the north and the south into one nation. Then he captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and called it the City of David. Now David and the people were living in Jerusalem, but something was missing. It was the Ark of the Covenant, which years before had been lost in battle and then returned, but no one had thought of it for a long time.
David and his soldiers went to get the Ark, and when they brought it into Jerusalem David danced before it in the procession. They set the Ark inside a tent, and David presented offerings and blessed the people in the name of the Lord. Years later, David bought land north of the city as a place to build a temple for God. David was not allowed to build the temple because he was a man of war. His son Solomon led the people in the building of the Temple, and it was magnificent. It was built with stones cut out of the mountains and with wood from the great cedar trees of Lebanon to the north. The interior walls were paneled with cypress and covered with gold veneer, engraved with intricate designs.
Inside the building there was a great hall, for the people to gather, and an inner room, called the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. There were also the things that the people used to help them get ready to come close to God’s presence – much like these objects the children have placed on their altar. There was an altar for burning incense, and the fragrant smoke of the incense rose up and filled the Temple like their prayers. There were the tables that held twelve loaves of bread, and the gold lampstands holding oil-burning lamps.
Outside the Temple was a huge altar made of bronze, for sacrifices, and an immense basin of water, for the priests to wash in before offering the sacrifices and prayers.
When the Temple was finished and ready to be dedicated, King Solomon stood before all the people and prayed: “Oh God, my God, listen to my prayers. Keep your eyes open to this Temple day and night, this place you promised to dignify with your Name. And listen to your people Israel when they pray at this place.”
This all happened around 1000 years before the time of Christ. Fast-forward some 400 years, and the people of Judah believe that God is in the Temple. That is true, but they also think that you have to go there to find God.
Jerusalem was surrounded by a wall. And the people thought the city wall would protect them from everything. They were wrong. First the Assyrians came and attacked the city. For a long, terrible time people fought and died. Finally the Assyrians went away. Then the Babylonians came, and they did not go away. In the year 597 B.C. the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar looted the Temple of all those beautiful and sacred objects, and deported Jerusalem’s leading citizens to Babylon. Then there was a confusing, 10-year period in which the people left in Judah wondered, now what? Some thought insurrection against the foreign rule was the best course of action. Others thought they should submit, and wait – that resistance would only lead to their destruction. Finally, Zedekiah, Judah’s last king, rebelled against Babylon, and the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar marched into Jerusalem, burned the Temple to the ground, and forced most of the remaining people on a long, hard journey across the desert. They must have looked back at the smoke of the burning city and despaired of ever seeing their home again. When they finally reached Babylon by the river, they hung their harps on the willow trees.
Psalm 137 expresses the communal memory: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps, for there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors mirth.” How could they sing? How could they pray to God in this strange land?
But let’s back up a bit, because the portion of Jeremiah that we heard today is set during that confusing, 10-year period between the first deportation of 597 and the final destruction in 587, although its intended audience is probably the people who lived after these tragic events occurred. This reading is a letter written by Jeremiah in Jerusalem to the first group of exiles in Babylon. As with the letters of Paul in the New Testament, Jeremiah is addressing the specific situation this community is facing. He first tells them how to live, and then he tells them what they can hope for in the future. What does he tell them?
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have 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.”
This was not what the people wanted to hear. They were supposed to put down roots, forget about returning to Jerusalem, at least for the foreseeable future, and pray for the welfare of the conquering state?
What the people wanted to hear was that this business with Babylon was just a short-term problem, that the exiles would return soon, the Davidic line of kings would be re-established, the sacred vessels brought back to the Temple, and life would return to normal. And there were other, well-respected prophets, particularly Hananiah, who were telling them exactly that: that God would uphold the old institutions that gave their lives meaning. But Jeremiah said NO.
Jeremiah’s message is that God demands a radical break from the past as a requirement for survival and for hope. The people of Judah have to give up everything they had depended on for their identity: Temple and sacrifices, king and army, political autonomy and status as God’s chosen people. They must accept and even embrace the wrenching pain of exile, and only then can their future begin to unfold. They must recognize the presence of God in their sorrow and confusion and loss, and they must depend on God alone. One commentator calls this letter of Jeremiah’s “a discourse on hope through community building.” [Louis Stulman, Jeremiah, p. 256]
Slowly, God’s people began to understand that God was in this new place, too. God’s presence came to them as they met together to read the scriptures, to tell the old stories, and to pray. And when, after 70 years, they were allowed to return to Jerusalem, do you know what happened? Not all of them went back. They had learned that God was with them, after all, in this strange and foreign land. Some decided to stay, because the land no longer seemed strange, and because God was with them there. God is everywhere.
And is this not what Seekers Church is about? Being in exile – that is, being at home away from home – is one way of being church. Seekers Church has claimed its identity as an exile congregation. I know this, because I read it in Marjory Bankson’s book The Call to the Soul. She says, “If we are . . . called to live an alternative vision amid structures created and run by others, we will be drawn to an exile community, where we can find support for the tough choices that face us in the places where we live and work.” [p. 140]
The whole idea of “call” both fascinates and frustrates me. I love a good “call” story – you know, a big, unambiguous, permanent conversion – like Paul getting knocked off his horse. Some of you have really good call stories. My grandmother had one. She received a tract from the Unity School of Christianity, delivered by mistake – it was addressed to a neighbor – and that was it for her. She wrote: “In the moment that I began to read I knew that at last I had found that for which I had been seeking all my life. As I read, an indescribable change came over me. It was as if I had been dead up until now and had suddenly come to life. But, O, what a different life from the one I had been living in!” By the way, she had been raised a Christian. My grandmother was around 30 years old the day she received that call, and it set her on the road she would travel for the rest of her life, until her death at 92.
I, on the other hand, have known only small, questionable, temporary calls, so I wonder, does God actually call me at all? Why don’t I ever get a really good call? And, where was God’s call – where was God, for that matter – when I was making some really stupid choices, or just stumbling along blindly? And let’s step away from ME for a moment – what about the millions of people, destitute and desperate, forced from their homes by earthquake, flood, war, imprisonment, slavery, or economic despair? What is their “call,” and what call do I have to be regretting hopes and dreams lost through my own failures and missed callings?
Is Seekers’ idea of “call” a privilege of those who have the resources and leisure to think about it and pursue it? I think not, but I sense that there may be at times a temptation to slip into such a view of call.
Is personal success a sign of God’s call? You couldn’t prove it by Jeremiah. His prophecy was not well received, to say the least. He suffered hostility and persecution much worse than any of the prophets before him. He was arrested, flogged, put in stocks for a night, and put on trial for his life. Driven to despair and constantly complaining to God, he still could not stop speaking the word of the Lord: Build your lives in exile, and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.”
As the writer of II Timothy says, I may be in chains, “but the word of God is not chained.”
Now let’s turn to the Gospel reading from Luke: Jesus healing the ten lepers.
This is one of the events narrated about Jesus as he is on the way to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. He is in the border region between Galilee and Samaria, which probably explains why there is at least one Samaritan among the lepers. The Jews hate the Samaritans because they don’t practice religion the right way, so they are religiously unclean. Leprosy in the Bible is a term used to refer to any of a number of skin ailments. People regarded leprosy as a sign of God’s judgment, and the Torah set down rules for lepers, which is why they were keeping their distance.
They cried, “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. So the lepers are not first healed and then sent to the priests for inspection. They are healed as they obey Jesus’ command. They step out in faith. Then, of course, only one of them, realizing he has been healed, turns back, praises God with a loud voice, and thanks Jesus. And that one is a Samaritan. And Jesus says, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
When I think about this story, questions begin to rise. Why didn’t the other nine stop to thank Jesus? I mean, if you were walking along and realized your leprosy was healed, wouldn’t you thank the person who healed you? Could it be that the nine Jews (I’m assuming all nine were Jews) were so intent on doing the right thing, keeping to the religious structures, following orders – that it just didn’t register with them that the power of God had broken through?
As in so many of the Gospel stories, it’s the Samaritan – the outcast, the one who is not one of us – who is the hero while the rest of us are the stooges. You, says Jesus – the chosen ones, God’s people, to whom the Covenant was given – you just don’t get it!
The Samaritan did more than say thank you to Jesus. He praised God with a loud voice. He recognized the source of healing power. The outcast is the model of faith. And Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.” Ten were cleansed; one was made well.
Where, in our lives, are the outcasts – the ones who by the structures of our society are kept at a distance – who might be the models of faith for us?
So here we are, nearing the end of preparation for recommitment – or, first commitment for some of us. What am I being called to offer to God and God’s creation? I have no idea. I mean, I have some ideas, but usually no clue as to whether what seems to me a good idea is a call of God or just my own whim. So the possibilities for discernment that open up within a community that takes its call seriously are very encouraging to me.
How can being a part of Seekers Church support my response to God’s call? The second paragraph of The Call of Seekers Church says, “By ‘Seekers community’ we mean an intentional body which sees Christ as our true life source.” Because I’m inclined to forget that a lot, being continually reminded of the true source of my life is an important support for me.
Finally, what do I need from and through this community in order to deepen my commitment to Christ? I need – at least, I want – all that you all do. I want to join a Mission Group. I want to write spiritual reports and turn them in to a spiritual director. I want to be held accountable for practicing spiritual disciplines. I want to be present to suffering, and to help relieve it. And, if on the way I find myself to be cleansed, I want to be sure to praise God with a loud voice and give thanks to Jesus Christ, the source of my life and healing.