Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
On Monday there was a front page article in the New York Times about how Midwestern cities who have seen better days are intentionally inviting immigrants groups to put down roots as part of an urban revitalization strategy. These cities, ranging from Dayton, OH to Dearborn, MI have found that immigrants are not to be feared or shut out, but those who bring new energy, gifts, and vision, and are willing to put down roots, work hard, and work collaboratively with long time residents for a hopeful future. This same article talked about how Turkish immigrants have made a difference in Dayton, starting new businesses and rebuilding and painting formerly dilapidated housing. At the same time, these immigrants had to find their way as strangers in a strange land, negotiating a new landscape culture, and customs.
I’ve never had the experience of being an immigrant – although my forbearers came here from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, and their stories of hardship and perseverance are still told in my family. What I have experienced is the joy and pain of moving many, many times. Since college I have lived in nine different apartments or homes and three different states as well as the District of Columbia. In each new place I’ve started over again, learning a new landscape and customs, making new friends, beginning a new stage of life. And while I’ve enjoyed each of the places I’ve lived and learned many things from the people who crossed my paths and the things people in those places held dear, none of them has felt like home. “Home” will always be the place where I grew up, San Diego, and it has an emotional attachment for me that’s hard to explain. Every time I smell salty sea air or get a whiff of a Eucalyptus tree, or bite into a fish taco, I almost lose it. Home is the first place I remember living, the place where I was formed, the landscape and seasons that shaped my childhood imagination, and how I lived before college. Since then every other place has felt like a way station, even if I liked it there. For years I kept one or two boxes unpacked in each new apartment or home to signify that the place I was living right then was not permanent.
Read out of context, our reading from Jeremiah sounds incredibly moving – a great motivational speech. Put down roots. Be invested in your community. See your future as being deeply connected to the place where you reside. What could be wrong with that? But when you study the context behind Jeremiah’s words the picture looks a little less sunny. Jeremiah is speaking to people who have been conquered by a hated enemy. They have been decimated by a nation who worships a different God. Jeremiah is speaking to a people who have seen everything they’ve grown up with, everything they’ve known, destroyed. Their place of worship was destroyed, their homes were destroyed, and all the leading intellectuals and religious and political cultural icons have been hauled off in chains to Babylon or killed. The place they loved so much, the place whose smells, sounds, food, culture and faith nourished them, is no more. In this context God’s word to the Israelites sounds more challenging if not defeatist: put down roots, eat unfamiliar foods and stay in this strange land for awhile. Invest in homeland of those who killed and demoralized your leaders and people. Your future is interconnected with the future of these people you loathe.
The Israelite exiles in Babylon to whom Jeremiah is speaking are living in a boundary space anthropologists call “liminal,” a space that is neither here nor there, neither their homeland nor a place they want to be. While Babylon is the last place on earth the Israelites want to live, it is the place where they engage in major soul searching about their God and identity. The soul searching is painful including the question “has God abandoned us?” but eventually they come out stronger. The Israelites emerge from Babylon with a clear sense of who they are and who God is in relationship to them. They learn that God goes with them when they cross boundaries –even when they go through a forced move. God isn’t confined to the Temple but works and can be found even in the most unlikely places. In Babylon, living in exile, the Israelites end up writing down some of their most important stories including many of the stories found in the book of Genesis.
Our Gospel from Luke also involves a boundary crossing. In it Jesus is traveling through the region between Samaria and Galilee. Jesus’ face is turned toward Jerusalem. He wants and needs to get to Jerusalem, but as he is moving toward his goal, crossing physical boundaries, he encounters ten lepers who call out asking for healing. Interestingly, Jesus does not heal them on the spot, but instructs them to go and show themselves to the priests. On the way, they are healed of their disease. Only one, a Samaritan, chooses to go back to praise God and say “thank you” to Jesus.
While the Samaritan leper was already on the margins of the Samaritan community, he had to move outside his homeland in order to be healed. He had to go outside his comfort zone, and encounter Jesus in a different land. While Samaritans and Israelites were both Jews, there was a deep hatred between them. They had different sacred sites, and the Israelites looked down on the Samaritans because they thought the Samaritans engaged in syncretism – adopting other Gods and religious practices rather than worshipping the one true God. In order to be healed, the leper had to cross from the known into the unknown, and receive healing from an outsider. In order for Jesus to heal others like the leper, he had to cross many boundaries, including geographical and religious ones. Even though his face was set on Jerusalem, Jesus was able to stop and speak to those who called out to him.
In today’s Old Testament and Gospel scripture lessons people meet God and have the opportunity to participate in God’s healing work in the midst of crossing boundaries – relational, cultural, religious, and geographic. Crossing boundaries such as these ones can give God’s people a clearer sense of who they are, and the chance to be healed or to participate in God’s healing work. If we seek to follow the Way of Jesus at St. Matthews we will most likely find ourselves outside our comfort zone, in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Are we willing to be open to the people, places, and experiences God may lead us into, places, people and experiences that might seem strange to us? What boundary or boundaries might God be calling each of us to cross in the days ahead?