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Learning to Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

By Paul Wheatley

Adapted from a homily for Year C Proper 23, St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff, Dallas, TX, originally given 10/8/2016

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: … Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4)

Have you ever been in a place that was supposed to feel like home, but felt foreign? The first time I came home from college, our family had sold my childhood home and moved across town. I was welcome to stay there but it did not feel like my house, my room anymore. The first time I emerged from the subway in New York’s Chinatown, I just as easily could have accidentally ridden a train to the other side of the earth. All the signs were in Chinese. The food smells were different. The people and sounds were different. It was disorienting.

If you’ve ever spent significant time in a foreign country, you probably know this feeling. Whether they spoke your language or not, things can feel different, and even if the difference is enjoyable, this causes stress. How do you make yourself at home when everything tells you you’re a foreigner?

In our day, you don’t have to have a passport from a different country to feel like a stranger, a foreigner. You may turn on the news, or open up your Facebook page, and the sheer shock, disbelief, and disappointment people feel in the face of the social strain and political division in American life is enough to make some feel like strangers in their own land.

If you have ever known grief, depression, addiction, or had plans go far off course, you are no stranger to the feeling of being a foreigner. People around you can smile, have fun, enjoy easy times, but you cannot. The jokes are not for you. The good times feel a million miles away, even in the middle of a crowd.

In the Track 1 RCL readings for Sunday, October 13, the church enters the experience of foreigners, exiles, as they seek to fit into a strange situation. The Gospel speaks of ten lepers, one of them a Samaritan, about whom Jesus says, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

In Second Timothy, the reading speaks of Paul’s experience in prison, innocent, yet chained like a criminal. And in Jeremiah, we hear a word from God after the destruction of Jerusalem, about how to be a good exile in Babylon, a foreigner at home in a strange land.

Living with faith, hope, and courage in the time between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, our life is “on the way.” We live by faith in the coming kingdom, proclaiming the glory of the coming kingdom, formed by our prayer and worship to learn the Lord’s songs while we are still “on the way.”

Luke 17:11–19 looks on the surface like a story about gratitude, or a story about healing: Jesus’s power over leprosy. But the details of this story tell us more about what it means to be an exile “on the way.”

The story begins “On the way to Jerusalem,” on the way to what the disciples expected to be Jesus’s greatest triumph, but which winds up leading to the cross and tomb before the glory. On the way, they travel through an in-between land, “going” it says, “through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” There they see ten lepers.

Because of the concerns for ritual purity in the Second Temple Period in Judaea, lepers were exiles from society. They had to stay away from town, and had to cry out “Leper! Unclean!” when coming near. Even now, if we want to talk about feeling like an untouchable outcast, we talk about feeling like a leper. Yet Jesus enters the village, and it says, “ten lepers approached him.”

They approached him. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They knew him to be merciful. So often we think of God as far from our sin, our needs, those broken places where we feel unclean. But lepers, who knew the feeling of being outcast, saw Jesus from afar, and knew mercy when it walked into town.

The details in the rest of the story speak to the theme that links the lectionary readings together. Jesus sends them to the priests for the ceremonial rites of purification and healing prescribed by Moses. Somewhere on the way, they were made clean. They weren’t just healed, they were made clean. Lepers whose identity — their calling card — had always been “Leper! Unclean!” are made clean, restored to fellowship with the Temple, the synagogue, with the worship life of Israel.

Ten were healed, but only one turns back. “When he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” He cries with the same loud voice that cried for mercy, the same loud voice that used to cry “Unclean!” This is the experience of restoration. No, it is more than that; it is worship: “He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him.”

It is there that Jesus makes a somewhat surprising observation that tells us what the story is really about, “Were not ten made clean? … Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Is Jesus being rude? In my international travels, I do not like being pointed out as a foreigner. I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate being addressed as foreigner either. What’s Jesus saying?

The term foreigner Jesus is using is a technical term. According to first-century Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, if you went to the temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day, you would have found a series of successive courtyards that get increasingly exclusive, the closer you get to the holy place. The very first barrier on it had a sign that read “No foreigner may enter, under pain of death” (Antiquities 15.417). No Samaritans, gentiles, or foreigners could come any closer to the temple. This is the word Jesus uses here: foreigner.

The point is this: For this Samaritan, this foreigner, it did not matter that he was a foreigner before Jesus healed him. Why? Because, as far as the temple is concerned, it does not matter where you came from if you are a leper. As a leper, this man was an exile from everywhere, a man without a country. Gentile, Jew, Samaritan, Martian … it did not matter, if you were a leper. The Gospel does not tell where the other nine came from, but it appears that when Jesus told them to go to the priest, they knew the way, and were healed on the way.

In the worship life of Israel in Jesus’s day, there were two main institutions: The temple in Jerusalem, where faithful Israelites offered sacrifices; and the synagogue, which some scholars suggest came about after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the exile to Babylon when the temple lay in ruins and the people of God were in exile in foreign lands. In the synagogue, the worship of Israel that could be done apart from the Temple was carried on: the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the singing of Psalms, the saying of prayers. It was how a people in exile could sing the Lord’s song in a strange land (Ps 137:4).

To make a synagogue, you didn’t need a temple, a priest, or a sacrifice. All you needed were the scriptures, and a minyan: ten people who had been bar mitzvah’ed. Even after the temple was rebuilt, these ten could carry on the traditions of their elders in exile, at a great distance from the temple, literally anywhere they could gather their minyan.

These ten lepers would not have been welcome in the traditional synagogue. They were a minyan of outcasts, a synagogue of the unclean, coming to Jesus and crying out for mercy. The other nine, once they were made clean, disappear from the story. Maybe they joined a synagogue, got with the program in the worship life of Israel, but only the foreigner, Jesus says, returned “to give praise to God.”

Readers: Gentiles, Samaritans, clean and unclean, by baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit you are made citizens of the kingdom of God, foreigners to the systems of this world. You are not first an American, Canadian, Nigerian, or Englishman. You are not first black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, man, woman, Republican or Democrat, clean or unclean. Like the Samaritan, all of us who are baptized into Christ are defined by the one who cleansed us. We are given a country by the one who redeemed us on the cross and will raise us up from tombs just as his tomb was empty.

You are a foreigner, a person sent on the way. You do not have to have arrived to worship. You do not have to have it all figured out. The church is a place for those who on the way find mercy in Christ, and turn back to praise God.

You do not have to have arrived because none of us do until we reach the New Jerusalem. Listen to what Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Jesus meets them on the way. They were healed on the way to meet the priests. Jesus sends him on his way. Our life until we reach our destination is on the way, synagogue worship, exile worship. Here, we live by faith in the coming kingdom, proclaiming with a loud voice the glory of the coming kingdom, formed by our prayer and worship to learn the Lord’s songs while we are still on the way.

This is why we pray, this is why we serve, this is why we offer ourselves, souls, and bodies as living sacrifices to God in worship and lives of holiness: not because we can make ourselves clean enough, or good enough; but because as people redeemed by Jesus’s cross we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Living on the way is hard because journeys make you weary. The temptation when the journey gets long, and life as an exile gets wearisome is either to stop and make yourself at home, giving up hope in ever reaching a destination, or to say to yourself that the journey itself is the destination, that nobody ever arrives, and we should make the best of it.

N.T. Wright put it this way in his book Surprised by Hope: “The point of the resurrection … is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. … What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. … What you do in the present — by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself — will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. … They are part of … building for God’s kingdom.”

The reading in 2 Timothy puts it this way, “[This] 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.” When chained, when hindered, when we feel like a foreigner, God is not hindered. God uses the foreigner to proclaim truth and to cultivate hope in a land without Temple or homeland.

And this, at last, is what the Lord says through Jeremiah in those days of exile, those in-between days away from the land: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city where I sent you into exile, and pray to the lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This is not “the journey is the destination,” nor is it giving up hope. It is living for the final destination in the place of exile, being a blessing wherever you’re planted.

This is why churches partner with local schools, open soup kitchens or food pantries, why we pray for our president, our governor, our mayor: not because this place is all there will ever be, but because this is where we are. This is where God has put us for now. We are all foreigners, resident aliens, living in the city of our exile. We make ourselves at home, but we don’t mistake it for our homeland. We pray, we work, we hope for better, and above all, we continue on our way.

Agrarian author Wendell Berry’s poem Mad Farmer Liberation Front speaks to the glorious folly of seeking the welfare of our city of exile, living in the present, in light of the world to come.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.

Want more of everything made.

Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery any more.

Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something they will call you.

When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.

Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace the flag.

Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. …

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap.

Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.

Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

“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” (Jer 29:7 NRSV)

Fr. Paul Wheatley is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.



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