I have to admit, I lobbied for this morning’s Old Testament reading. It’s one of those Bible verses that I “rediscovered” (as in, read for probably the first time) when I was in seminary, and it is one of my favorite passages from scripture.
This is the story behind it: imagine yourself as one of the people who lived in Jerusalem when the king of Babylon came and burned it to the ground. Not only is Zion, your holy mountain, overrun with enemies, but to cement his victory, that king makes you go far, far away, to the capital of his empire, and live there indefinitely. Your parents don’t sing the old songs anymore, but instead sing:
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows* there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
And the one thing you long for, the hope that smolders in the grey fog of this oppression, is that your God would step in, and strike down all your enemies, and let you go free, like God did when your people were enslaved in Egypt generations ago.
But when God speaks, there’s no talk of smiting the enemy. No talk of revenge, or restoration, or exodus. When God interrupts the songs of lament and sorrow, God just says: “Thrive.”
I don’t know about you, but when I pray to God, I’m really hoping that God comes out with a “yes” to whatever I’m asking for. I just hate it when God gives me what I need, instead of what I want.
God gives the Israelites a miracle, but it’s not the one that they’re hoping for. It probably doesn’t even look like a miracle to a lot of them. Really, it’s nothing more than God interrupting their misery, and inviting them to change their attitude. That wasn’t what the Israelites wanted. But it was exactly what they needed.
When the Roundtable Pulpit bible study talked about this reading last Sunday, we started to tell our own stories of moving—all of you have them too. There was a lot of emotion tied into these stories. Some of it was positive, and some was negative, but there wasn’t anyone at the table who was neutral about the process of moving, no one who said, “Oh yeah, that was totally easy and didn’t disrupt my life in the least.”
And throughout all this discussion, the word that kept coming up was, “attitude.” It was all about the attitude. Moving was hard, everyone agreed, but whether it was a good move or not was not in any way linked to the difficulty involved. It was about attitude. Were you happy to be going where you were going? Resigned? Resentful? One person in our group, who grew up in a military family, has seen many moves herself and has witnessed many more, told us that people’s moves tended to be exactly as good as they had decided they would be.
Of the stories we told each other, one stood out. It came from a woman who’d lived in her house up north for 57 years, ever since she was in first grade. She had dreams of her children getting to have it. She gave up that dream when she and Bob moved here to Florida. She talked about giving up steamer trunks that had belonged to her grandparents when they first came here from Europe. She said she’d actually blocked out parts of that move, because it was so hard. And then, after all that, she said, “It was the best decision we ever made. Now our kids don’t have to deal with that stuff.”
Rita didn’t try to gloss over the difficulty of the move, but she was able to name the blessing in it. She was able to see that giving up her house and her stuff might not have been what she wanted, but it was what she needed.
Maybe that’s why this verse from Jeremiah has such power to me: because of the wonder and genius of God’s breaking into the Israelite’s desire for redemption and retaliation, and planting there instead the seeds of blessing: Settle down. Have a family. Plant a garden. Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare, you’ll find your own.
It’s good news that God finds even our attitudes of anger and hurt and sadness fertile ground to plant seeds like that. It’s good news that God can move us beyond our own expectations, and bring us to see more of God’s reality.
This morning’s gospel lesson, where we hear Jesus praise the faith of one leper over and above that of nine others, invites us to see the difference between what we expect, and what God is doing. And that invitation lies in the question: what did the other nine lepers do wrong?
The answer is, “Nothing.” They did nothing wrong. In fact, they did exactly what Jesus told them to do. If they had been in kindergarten, they all would have gotten gold stars.
The nine lepers did nothing wrong. But the text seems to be telling us that they could have done something better.
I think it’s worth pausing here to recognize exactly what happens. The first nine lepers were still made clean, just like the tenth. And like the tenth leper, they recognize that Jesus is something special—they call him “Master,” and the only other people to call Jesus by this particular Greek word in the gospel of Luke are the disciples. These lepers come to Jesus expecting to be healed, believing that Jesus has the power to do it. They do have faith, and they are made clean.
What happens to the tenth leper is a double blessing. Not only is he made clean, just like the others, but Jesus also tells him that his faith has made him whole.
This is a different word than the other nine lepers get. The text tells us that they were made clean—and we know that this means that they were healed of leprosy. But Luke saves the actual Greek word for healing, which can also mean saving, for the tenth leper. There is a difference, Luke seems to be saying with the words he uses, between being made clean and being made whole.
I think it links back to the difference between getting what you want, and getting what you need. The first nine lepers got what they wanted: they were made clean. But the tenth leper got what he needed: a glimpse of God.
That was where the tenth leper was doubly-blessed. He saw Jesus for who he was, and because of that, he knew that the right place to praise God was at his feet.
And the reaction of the tenth leper is important, because it moves us into the “so what” of the gospel text. So what, that God gives us what we need instead of what we want? So what, that God doesn’t just leave us alone once we’re clean, but also wants to heal us and save us and make us whole?
The “so what” of the tenth leper is gratitude. His first reaction in light of recognizing that in his being cleaned, God has acted through the man named Jesus, is to run back to Jesus and throw himself at his dirty smelly feet and praise God. The gratitude of the leper was a sign: a sign of God’s work in his heart, and in his world.
Our liturgy is full of moments of thanksgiving for exactly this reason: because not only is it right to give God thanks and praise, but because our gratitude is a sign of our belonging to God. Our gratitude is a sign that the seeds of blessing that God planted in our brokenness are flourishing.
True, we forget that sometimes, but it is so worth remembering: as Christians, we are a people of gratitude. In this culture Christians are often identified as people with a specific set of morals. But what would it mean for the world if we were known instead for how grateful we are? For how every little thing seems to send us back to the feet of God in a paroxysm of delighted gratitude?
We have this little saying, that we are blessed to be a blessing. And the truly marvelous thing about gratitude is that it is its own blessing. Gratitude can change a time of lament into a promise of lovingkindness. It can fill desert emptiness with Babylonian gardens. It can illuminate darkness with God’s shining presence.
So your mission this week—should you choose to accept it—is to go out into the world this week with your eyes peeled for moments like that, moments when God’s presence is shining. I hope you share those moments with us next Sunday, but I also hope that you’ll share them as they happen with whoever will hear you give thanks to God.
Speaking of which, I want to tell you: I thank God for you. I thank God for giving this congregation such a heart for teaching and training people like me. For your kindness and hospitality, for your stories and cups of coffee and biscotti. Even for being yourself, warts and all, because I am learning more fully because of you. And maybe most of all, for being a place and a people to whom I can come and worship, and see Jesus reflected in your acts of love. Thank God for you, and praise the One from whom all blessings flow.