Readings: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 • Psalm 66:1-11 • 2 Timothy 2:8-15 • Luke 17:11-19
This week’s theme is: Even in exile, God is with you. The prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites to build houses, plant gardens, and raise families while in exile. God sent them there for a reason and had not forsaken them. In Psalm 66, the Psalmist reminds us it is God who allows us to be tested, tried and burdened, and he is with us through it all. Paul reminds Timothy that even Jesus suffered hardship, yet “the word of God is not chained.” Don’t be ashamed of the circumstances you are in—make the best of them, knowing God is with you. The sermon focuses on the story of the ten lepers who lived in exile because of their affliction, and how Jesus showed up.
Exile ≠ Outsider
Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)
Introduction: Have Luke 17:11-19 read at the beginning of the sermon and ask the question, have you ever felt like you were somewhere you didn’t belong?
Our sermon today is titled: “Exile ≠ Outsider.” This may sound like a contradiction of terms, but it actually explains one of the many tensions we hold together as the people of God. We are citizens of both the kingdom of God and the world; our home is heaven and we live here on earth; we are at home, and we are in exile.
People often feel like outsiders—whether they are in enemy territory, or they are treated like an enemy or undesirable. This story from Luke 17 focuses on those who were undesirable, and confronts us with three questions. I know sermons usually are broken into points, but questions can mix it up for us and make us do a double-take on the truth that’s coming through. The three questions are:
- Jesus where?
- Jesus who?
- Jesus with whom?
In Indianapolis, it’s 38th street. In Washington, D.C., it’s 16th Street. In Detroit, it’s nicknamed “8 Mile.” It seems every city, large and small, has a thin dividing line between the rich and the poor, the good neighborhoods and the bad, the safe streets and the mean streets. Sometimes these boundaries occurred naturally, many times they’re the result of old grudges and racial or ethnic divides—old hate and fear. These “in-between” places aren’t always the safest places to be. Sometimes one block or just one step in the wrong direction could get you in trouble—depending, of course, on who you are.
Luke includes an interesting geographical detail as he frames this episode in Jesus’ ministry. (A short aside here. Something important to keep in mind as you read the Gospels is that the writers never wasted ink. Details are there to help you unlock the story.)
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. (Luke 17:11 NRSV)
Samaria and Galilee. This would be one of those “8 Mile” divides. 8 Mile is a street that marks the northern boundary of the City of Detroit. It marks a divide between the struggling neighborhoods of Detroit and the more affluent suburbs to the north; it marks a boundary between the traditionally white and black parts of the area. People from either side, for much of history, have stopped at 8 Mile rather than go into the “wrong” neighborhood. What might be only a few hundred feet is a vast fault line between cultures and economic lines.
The important visual detail here appears on the map of Samaria and Galilee. One glance will tell you there is no “region” between them. The two regions border each other directly. The “region” would be something like 8 Mile, some thin ribbon of divide between these two hostile cultures.
Samaritans were considered to be half-breeds by the Israelite people. They had mixed different beliefs into the Jewish faith and introduced new narratives into the Jewish story. They had different traditions and looked different than their Israelite counterparts.
Jesus walked through Samaria on several occasions, talking with the residents and telling stories where they were the heroes.
As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:12-13 NRSV)
Jesus also spent time with another group of alienated people—lepers. Leprosy was a general term for a variety of skin diseases thought to be contagious. Lepers were thought to be cursed by God for some sin or attitude—in other words, it was the person’s fault as a result of their moral/spiritual choices. Yet often through the pages of the Gospels, we find Jesus healing, touching, and restoring those with leprosy.
So the first question: Jesus where? Jesus is among the exiles. He walks among those on the fringe and knows who they are. If you want to find Jesus, you look among the exiles. Look in those in-between, limbo spaces where most of us are uncomfortable.
Our brains, especially our Western brains, are unstoppable categorizers. We want to categorize everything, file it as “all the way this” or “all the way that.” And here Jesus is in the middle of those spaces, outside the comfortable spaces. He is where the outcasts live. He goes to those who don’t fit into a society category anymore. Their only category is “those rejected.”
This is part of what it means to be at Home in Exile. Jesus is always hanging around with the exiles—those who society doesn’t have a place for and who don’t fit in. If you want to get in touch with Jesus, then serve those who can’t pay you back, befriend those who society sees as unimportant.
When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. (Luke 17:14 NRSV)
This is an odd moment in the exchange here. Like we’ve discussed, leprosy was a term for several kinds of skin disorders, from cellulitis to eczema, to what we know as leprosy in our day. If lepers went into the village to get food or other supplies, they had to shout “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn people they were coming. People pulled their kids away and shut the door.
The Law made provisions for those who were healed of leprosy. Eventually, the eczema or other inflammation might go away. The priests in the temple were also the community lawyers and the community health officials. The priest looked you over and made sure you no longer had an infection on your skin, and then reintroduced you into the community if you were well.
It seems strange to us here that Jesus, who is starting a new movement and trying to gather followers, would send these guys back to the priests. Why would he do that? So the community will know that they are healed and may be accepted. If they are allowed to re-enter society, these lepers can get jobs, get married, buy property—they can be part of society again.
So the healing that Jesus brings is not only of their physical condition, but of their social and relational condition as well. One of the main themes here is restoration.
But there is another point to be made:
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. (Luke 17:15 NRSV)
It’s interesting that nine of the lepers are happy to run back home. They are going back to the way things were. By that evening, they’re having a barbecue with their family, kicking back in their favorite chair, and done with all that exile stuff.
Isn’t that the truth of us sometimes? We pray and beg for some kind of healing in our lives, some kind of provision that we need, and when we get it, we think Jesus who? Gratitude isn’t our first impulse when God gives us blessings. It’s almost counter-intuitive to turn around and acknowledge that we didn’t get this blessing on our own and that we don’t have ownership over it.
Too often, the kids that God gives us become idols—we obsess over them and forget the world. Or the health that God gives us is taken for granted—we disregard stewarding our bodies and minds and just go back to the “way things were.” Or the marriage that God rescues becomes something we ignore—we go back to old habits of bitterness and hiding secrets from each other.
Jesus who? We forget the blessings God gave us are from him alone—that we didn’t earn them and we, in the end, don’t own them. That’s a sad and beautiful part of this story. Jesus knew that the nine lepers, 90% statistically, of the people he healed fully understand what he did for them. But he healed them anyway. He made that first move here.
Someone asked Martin Luther, the great theologian of the 16th century, what the true nature of worship is. He said, “It is the tenth leper returning.” The response shown by the one is what pleases God the most. It is stopping to say: I didn’t do it on my own, I don’t run the show here.
He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. (Luke 17:16 NRSV)
This is the nature of worship. It’s not like Jesus is going to take the blessing back— those other guys remained healed. Technically, this guy didn’t have to thank Jesus, and yet he did.
Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18 NRSV)
That’s how exiled this community was. The Israelites and the Samaritans were hanging out together. They were brought together by mutual desperation, despite their prejudice against each other. And it is in this person, this exile, that Jesus finds a worshipper.
…except this foreigner? Jesus is asking a rhetorical question here. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be the chosen people of God, and yet none of you stopped to give God praise and thanks for your healing?” Isn’t it interesting that the heretic, the half-breed, the outlier was the only one with a proper response?
When God intervenes in our lives, may we have a better response than 90% of the people in this story!
Jesus with whom?
One of the great misnomers many can come to believe is that God turns his back when we sin. Another is that sickness, disease, or being in exile is a sign that God is not pleased with us and whatever we are going through is either the result of our sins, or his punishment. How contrary is this to Scripture that tells us God never leaves us nor forsakes us, that we can never be snatched out of his hands, that his love is far wider and deeper than we can ever imagine.
The truth is, God is with us in the midst of our exile. When we are feeling abandoned, our feelings are not being honest with us. Feelings are just that—feelings. They don’t always tell us the truth because they are not often based on truth. You see this in children who suddenly look up and don’t see mom or dad and believe they are alone. Their feeling turns into fear and they may cry out. But they aren’t alone. The parent may be just out of sight. We sometimes fear God has rejected us when we are feeling especially alone, separated from others, exiled because of what we do or believe. Jesus is there, right in the midst of our pain, or loneliness, or feelings of abandonment.
As we mentioned in the beginning of this sermon, we are citizens of both the kingdom of God and the world; our home is heaven and we live here on earth; we are at home, and we are in exile. And God is with us. This is the wonderful message of hope. “I know you are in exile, I know you’re in a place where you feel powerless and disoriented, but trust me to take care of you where you are. I am with you.”
The answer to “Jesus with whom?” is clear. Jesus is among us as we live as his people in exile, as we make our home in exile. We can make two mistakes here. On one side, we just take up the life of the world around us—dropping our biblical morals and worldview when they might get in our way. On the other side, we can be what some have called, “Too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” We can avoid non-Christians and put a layer of judgment and alienation between us and them. Did we see Jesus doing this? Not at all. He was always among the broken, even the morally broken. The only people he seemed to separate himself from were the religious people, the “clean” people, who were more focused on law and ritual than they were on people.
We are called to make our home in exile. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you are suddenly cured of your spiritual homesickness, but that you can make sense of this homesickness. You know that the world doesn’t feel like home because it IS NOT home! We were never made to find our complete fulfillment here. That is only found in Christ, and fully found only at the end of all things. So while we are here, Jesus is with us, and we get those glimpses of home in our fellowship with him and each other.
Jesus with whom? Jesus with us, his exiled people who are making a home as they wait for their final home.
The story of the ten lepers, and the blessing of Jeremiah on the exiles, brings us three questions today.
Jesus where? —Jesus is among the exiles, on the fringe. He is comfortable hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks with those society thinks of as unclean and broken. If you want to meet him, go meet them.
Jesus who? —Too often our answer is to run off, like the nine lepers, rather than stopping to thank God and recognize his gifts in the world. May we have a grateful, observant heart to realize that everything is from his hand and that everything—including ourselves—belongs to him.
Jesus with whom? —Jesus is with us as we make our home as exiles in this world, when we engage the world with love and respect and meet people where they are. Also when we forgive the world, and each other in it, for not fulfilling us completely. That’s God’s job.
May the Spirit bring you the right question as you move about as his people in exile this week.
From Speaking of Life
- We live in a world focused on convenience. What are some of the dangers of convenience?
- So many items of convenience take away from connection and relationship. What conveniences in your life actually deter connections?
- What conveniences get in the way of developing a personal relationship with God?
- How has instant gratification shaped our expectations of answered prayer?
From the sermon
- Have you ever been somewhere that had a clear, but maybe very thin dividing line? (Berlin wall, DMZ in Korea, etc.). What was that place like?
- In the sermon, we talked about how Jesus is drawn to the fringe— with the leper colony between two feuding people groups. Why do you think he is drawn there? What does that tell us about him?
- The nine lepers ran off without a word of gratitude, but only the non-Jewish person the “foreigner” returned to thank Jesus. Why do you think he was the one who returned? Why is it easy to forget gratitude when we are blessed by God? How do we keep thankful?
- Have you ever met Jesus on the “fringe”? Have you ever served or befriended people on the outside and found Christ’s presence there?
- We also discussed Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7. Here God tells the people to put down roots even in exile—to root where they are planted. As God’s people in exile, is this hard to do? As citizens of heaven and residents of earth, how do we live out this dual identity?
- Is there a fringe that God is calling you to in your own life? Is there some “undesirable” people or person that he wants you to serve and meet him with?
Quote to ponder:
“Whenever I meet someone in need, it’s really Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” ~Mother Theresa