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Wednesday, October 09, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 AND Psalm 66:1-12 OR II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, II Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

The lectionary readings for this Sunday begin with surprising advice for people being held in captivity.  It’s not as though they don’t have any land.  Perhaps they are more like sharecroppers, or prisoners under house arrest.  Probably better than that.  They are allowed to go on with their life.  They just can’t go home to familiar places and ways, to the land where they believe right worship is practiced.

You’d think Jeremiah would be screaming and yelling, continuing to cry about their plight.  He’s done that along the way.  He’s told them this was coming and stayed the course with them.  He’s not been without sympathy.  But now he sends them a letter.  (Jeremiah 29:1-2)  His instruction:  “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”  (vss. 5-6)

Their time in this strange land is going to last awhile (vs. 10, not part of the assigned reading, says, “70 years”).  Not an initially encouraging message, but at least they can thrive while they are there.  Perhaps wherever we are is the place we are to thrive.  We cannot always change the circumstances of our living but we have some control over how we live in those circumstances.  We’ve already had the story, out of sequence, in which Jeremiah buys a field as a sign that “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  (Jeremiah 32:15)

This week’s reading is about more than clinging to one’s own survival.  While in exile (wherever we are?) the instruction is to “seek the welfare of the city . . . and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  (Jeremiah 29:7)  I’ve once had this scripture read as I was installed into a new pastorate. I hope they didn’t think I felt like I was in exile there.  I felt, instead, that their welfare and my welfare we tied together. We can thrive and find health only when the culture around us is healthy and thriving.

Some may feel like they live in a strange and alien country these days, what with all the political wrangling going on, the violent attacks on malls and schools and military installations, the crime and homelessness and international strife that greet us on the TV screen or in the newspaper, or sometimes just as we drive and walk the streets of our hometown.  Jeremiah’s call is to work for the welfare of that city and country and world where we live, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The reading from II Kings is a story about finding health, and again “place” is of significance.  Like some other scriptures, it is a story of reversal.  Naaman, commander of the Aramean army, had leprosy.  (II Kings 5:1)  The Arameans, a semi-nomadic pastoralist people originating out of what is present-day Syria, were frequent raiders into Israeli territory.  Sound familiar?

Leprosy is a disease which causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness that gets worse over time.  It leads to serious secondary infections and deformation.  In biblical times, there was no known effective treatment.  Lepers were shunned as “unclean” and forced to live as outcasts.  In Naaman’s household, however, was a young Israel girl held captive as the servant of his wife.  (vs. 2)  She knew of a prophet back home who could cure the leprosy.  (vs. 3)

As communication follows through proper channels with the king of Aram sending a letter and money to the king of Israel, it becomes almost humorous.  (vss. 4-6, not included in the assigned reading)  The king of Israel thinks he is being asked to cure Naaman, something which he knows he cannot do.  He thinks it is a trick to start a new round of conflict.  (vs. 7)  Elisha, the prophet known to the girl, hears what is going on and asks that Naaman be sent to him.  (vs. 8)

When Naaman arrives Elisha tells him, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean.”  (vss. 9-10)  The humor continues as prideful Naaman stomps away angry.  He deserves better than this, perhaps a miracle in which Elisha “would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”  (vs. 11)  Why would I get into the muddy Jordan when I have rivers in “Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  Could I not wash in them, and be clean?”  (vss. 11-12)

Isn’t that they we want?  To experience life and health?  On our own terms, in the places that are convenient to us?  Can’t we find health on unfamiliar territory?  Is Naaman refusing to thrive where he is, like those in exile being addressed by Jeremiah?  I bet Naaman wouldn’t have been a fan of Obamacare either!

Eventually Naaman cooperates, is healed, and says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”  That takes us into another whole wormhole of issues, as does the greed of Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, so that the leprosy ends up infecting one of God’s faithful.  Naaman becomes the “good guy” and Gehazi, the “bad guy.”  For this week, it’s sufficient to see this as a story about finding health and thriving in life in unexpected and unfamiliar (even “muddy”) places.

The Gospel lesson is also about leprosy, this time ten lepers.  They approach Jesus and he heals them.  (Luke 17:11-14)  Only one remembers to turn back and thank Jesus, and that one is a Samaritan (kin to “The Good Samaritan”?).  (vss. 15-16)  I’m sure there is another element of reversal in this story, the Samaritan, a social untouchable among strict Jews of the day, coming out as the “good guy.”  (vss. 17-18)  We usually treat it as a story about being thankful and Jesus ends with a point about faith.  “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  (vs. 19)  Today, with my emphasis upon surviving and living where we are, I would suggest that we add thanksgiving to that list.  Wherever we find life and health, even in a foreign land or a strange place or as foreigners ourselves, is a place to give thanks.

The connection of the remaining readings is tenuous except for a few phrases, but since I thrive on the challenge of making connections, I’ll offer the following abbreviated comments

1.      The writer of II Timothy, putting himself into Paul’s story, is about a life of suffering and endurance. (II Timothy 2:9-10) “Paul” was able to “thrive” wherever he was.  He was never alone.  “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful---for he cannot deny himself.”  (vss. 11-13)  Thriving then means learning to get along and to work hard.  “Timothy” is instructed to “warn them . . .  that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has not need to be ashamed . . .”  (vss. 14-15)  There are nuances that call for subtle interpretations, especially given the nature of “Timothy’s” calling, but I leave that to you.

2.      Both Psalms are Psalms of praise to a God who provides what it takes to thrive wherever we are.  God “has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.  For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried . . . We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.”  (Psalm 66:9-10 & 12)


The resources are there, wherever we are.  Let us survive, thrive, and give thanks in those places, seeking the welfare of the city, the nation, and the world where we are.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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