9 October 2022 – Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by SPEAKER
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’” (Once in a Lifetime)
Jeremiah reports that the Israelites have been sent into exile. God has laid out the case against them…and they have proven themselves guilty of all kinds of idolatry…and so they have been carried away.
Last week, as they left, they mourned. Lamenting as they looked back on the desolate city… their home (Lamentations 1:1-6)…And upon their arrival by the waters of Babylon they wondered, how can we sing our songs on this alien soil (Psalm 137).
They find themselves, as we all do…at some point in our lives…in a place we didn’t plan to be. A place we didn’t expect to be. A place we would rather not be. Asking ourselves, “where is that beautiful house? Where does that highway go to? Am I right, am I wrong? … “My God, what have I done?” (Once in a Lifetime).
We need to be careful, though. A spiritual exile…the dark night of the soul…the existential questioning that might keep us up at night…is something that we all experience from time to time, but It is not the same as actual exile.
When, “the Jewish people lost their homeland,” says one writer, they lost “their liberty, their place of worship, and their way of life. Many lost their lives, their names, their food (Dan. 1:6-8), their political autonomy (2 Kings 16:6), their human dignity (Ps. 137:3-4),” [Jacob Birch, No, Western Christians Are Not In Exile], which is not an experience many people who look like me share.
There are people who have experienced exile…in the world…who continue to experience exile. We see them in the news every day…the literally millions of refugees and asylum seekers across the globe…According to the UNHCR at the end of 2021, there were more than 89 million people worldwide who had been forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations] That figure has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and is still climbing. And that doesn’t even count all of the indigenous populations whose ancestors were forcibly removed from their land, or who fled persecution…and whose descendants continue to live in exile.
So we have to be careful not to make a false equivalence…my existential angst (filtered through Talking Head lyrics), is not the same as the actual exile described by Jeremiah…
We also have to remember that not everyone in Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah was exiled. Only the leadership…the skilled artisans…the wealthy…those who considered themselves near the center of the power structure…the mainstream…”the normies” they were the ones forcibly removed. The poor? The sick? The ones we still tend to think of as “on the margins”?…They stayed. They remained in Jerusalem [Source]. The center is exiled…the marginal remain…
I’ve been thinking about this ever since Jennifer McCracken and Delphia Bizzel from MANNA were here a few weeks ago. How easily we refer to Delphia and her cohort as “living on the margins”…which begs the question…the margins of what? If she in “on the margins” where are we? In that metaphor “We” become the unmarked center, don’t we? Saying, “they live in the margins,” is a way of asserting that “we do not.” We are the center or closer to it… But all throughout scripture, God is constantly challenging that metaphor…God seems to want people we keep at the margins to be centered, and for our centers to become more marginal.
The exile can be read as a lesson for those at the center in how to be marginal…what it feels like, and how to live and thrive as an outsider. It’s a hard, but a terribly valuable lesson .
The lepers in today’s Gospel are also marginal…and one was a Samaritan! Doubly marginalized. And yet, the Samaritan returns…to give thanks. It is the Samaritan…this doubly marginalized person who does the faithful thing…which, to be fair, on one level is simply the lived reality of anyone not in “the mainstream”; they often put in twice the work just to be thought of as merely half as competent…which again is a problem with the center.
On another level, this is Jesus using shock tactics to wake us up to the problem of maintaining an us/them, insider/outsider, center/marginal duality. Luke uses “Samaritan” as a code for “the last person you would expect to do the right thing.” Priests and Levites (the not marginal) are supposed to stop to help an injured person on the road, might be expected to return and give thanks…but Samaritans; looked down upon and despised would never do that. So picture the person you would never in a million years think anything positive about…the person you know would never do anything nice, never return and give thanks…the person you can’t imagine Jesus praising for anything…whoever you’re picturing…that person…that’s your Samaritan. And that’s who you should see when Jesus says, ”And one was a Samaritan.”
The thing is…we all fall into us/them, either/or thinking…each of us is potentially a Samaritan to someone else. But doing the faithful thing is something that anyone can do…and often it is unexpected. Because being faithful often goes against the mainstream…against the concentration of wealth, the amassing of power, the control of the narrative by only a few.
If we can find ways to de-center ourselves…willingly moving from the center to the margins…breaking apart this metaphor of center and margin, and practicing putting the cares and concerns of “the marginalized” at the center of our world…If we can do that, we will come to recognize that, in the words of Jeremiah, “in their welfare [we] will find [our] welfare”…And then we might even begin to recognize that all of our welfare is bound up together…and working towards a future where that’s a reality.
And that is risky, and faithful, and many will think it’s unexpected…But if we are ever to move beyond the refrain of “same as it ever was”… we will have to make that journey. We will need to take ourselves out of the center of our own narrative, and begin listing to and working for the ones we continue to view a “marginal.” We will have to surprise ourselves…We will undoubtedly surprise others…but once we do, we will discover that not only has our faith made us well, but that we are right where we are supposed to be. Amen.