10/09/22 – Resident Aliens


October 9, 2022
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Jer. 29,1, 4-7; Ps. 66: 1-12;2 Tim. 2: 8-15; Luke 17: 11-19
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon co-wrote a book, published in 1989, which has become a classic. In “Resident Aliens,” Hauerwas, a Christian ethicist and Willimon, former pastor, college chaplain and Methodist bishop, rejected the idea that the U.S. or any country is a “Christian Nation.” Contemporary American historians have come to the same conclusion. “Resident Aliens,” subtitled “Life in the Christian Colony,” contends that churches should focus on developing and nurturing Christian life and community rather than trying to change the culture through domination. They proposed that Christians should see themselves as “resident aliens” in a foreign land, using the metaphor of a colony to describe the church.

Of course, community implies coming together, sharing our faith, and living the values that define us as Christ’s disciples. Can this be done on the internet? So far, the internet, though of some value, has not increased church membership or discipleship. Even with Zoom worship studies, bible studies, and chat rooms, active participation is still increasingly low in all Christian churches. The pursuits that have replaced worship as a top priority are too numerous to mention. I once heard a theologian and pastor at a preaching conference say that church attendance dropped the most and started a downward trend in 1964. That was the year that the majority of American households had a television. But we don’t need statistics like that to know that we are easily distracted from God. The Scriptures first testified to the fickleness of our faith.

By age, the numbers predict a downward trend in church participation. Mainline Protestant and Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in the 18–25-year age range, report that only 16% -17% say they attend church once a week. (Pew Research) The next attendance group ranges from twice a month to a few times a year. In the 30 – 49-year-old age range the numbers of regular attendees is 29-36% with those attending historically black churches at the high end. (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/religious-landscape-study/age-distribution/)

How do you build or maintain an active, living Christian faith with so few participating in worship or fellowship? I don’t know of anyone who has come up with a solution. The numbers don’t vary with worship styles or music. Even if a church has a great online presence, if the people in the faith community don’t encourage others to check it out online, the number of people who are reached has little chance to increase.

Jeremiah was concerned about how the Jewish exiles’ faith would be affected, exiled in a different culture and religion. Their exile had been their punishment, imposed by God for their faithlessness, so, what would happen now? The people of Judah had ignored God’s warnings, through the prophets, and continued to stray from the model for community God had given them. Judah, as the Northern kingdom after the kingdom divide, had initiated an increasing gap between the have and the have-nots, driven by injustice, but lack of compassion and mercy. When Judah was conquered by Babylon, the powerless had been left behind in an occupied homeland and the powerful had been marched into Babylon. But the exiles’ plight was not as dire as it could have been. Yes, they lost the wealth and place of prominence in society, but according to scripture, they were not killed or forced to be slaves.

The exiles’ predicament was not that of Paul imprisoned in Rome. His prison would have been the infamous Tullianum, the only prison for a city of one million people. It was a small prison, which leads one to believe that those charged with crimes other than being an enemy of the state, suffered a worse fate than being imprisoned in a damp, rat-infested cell. From his cell, Paul is believed to have written letters, which instructed Timothy concerning his leadership of the church. Even from his prison cell, Paul remained faithful to and active in spreading the gospel. Prison is the ultimate exile, yet Paul continued to fulfill his calling. Timothy was to use Paul as an example. Our passage from 2 Timothy tells us Paul suffered hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.” But Timothy is assured: “The word of God is not chained.” (v.9)

The Jewish exiles in Babylon had much better conditions in which to practice their faith. In Babylon they were allowed to work in skilled jobs and buy land to build a home. They had the freedom to continue to practice their own faith traditions and to worship their God. Yes, their condition was not ideal. They had lost their beloved building, the temple in Jerusalem in which they believed God resided in the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. They had lost their homeland. They had to come to the realization that God cannot be contained in a building, and they didn’t need a building to worship.

Jeremiah instructed these Jewish exiles they didn’t need the ideal circumstances of living in a land where everyone was like themselves. Jeremiah delivered God’s command:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters;  multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29: 5-7)

Jeremiah spoke for God in warning them not to obsess over what they had lost, but to live full and abundant lives with what they had. This did not mean they were to adopt the values and religion of the majority. God had placed them in a particular place, a place with different values who worshiped false idols, to witness to God’s desire to bring all people unto God’s self as promised in the Abrahamic covenant. They were even told to pray for Babylon, the enemy. Now, where have we heard that before? Jeremiah assured the exiles that they could still serve and honor God, even while living as “resident aliens.” By helping the communities in which they had found themselves, they could help themselves.

This is what we are called to do as Christians living in a secular society with values that are not Christian, even those that claim the faith but distort the gospel, as was the case with Timothy’s congregations. As “resident aliens” we are called to have families and teach our children the faith by practice and witness as Jeremiah encouraged the Babylonian exiles. By working to build better communities, ones that seek justice and peace, we make the world a better place for ourselves and our neighbors.

The psalmist responds with a call for gratitude. The poet exhorts the people to praise God for all God has done for them, while also recognizing that everyone will endure the suffering of some form. The gift of life and a beautiful, bountiful world in which to live deserves our thanks and praise.

Our gospel reading continues the theme of gratitude as bringing us closer to God and the way God desires for us to live in the community. Lepers were also not allowed to live in the community of others, except other lepers. They were aliens among their own people. They were captive in their leper colonies. When Jesus healed them, he brought them from the margins into the embrace of their own faith community. They could once again join their fellow Jews in worship inside the temple. Those other nine lepers have been much maligned by preachers and teachers who have criticized them as ingrates. They all believed, and they all did as Jesus commanded, which was in accordance with Jewish law. What was different about the Samaritan?

Samaritans were the outcasts of the Jewish community. It is believed they were part of the Jewish people who did not get evicted during the Babylonian exile. If you’ll remember, the Babylonians took the best and the brightest to make sure they couldn’t stir up a rebellion back in the land of the conquered Israel. The Samaritans were not unlike the urban dwellers left behind in the cities when affluent whites fled to the suburbs. The Samaritans were considered inferior, half-blood Jews, uneducated in the ways of proper Judaism. No, Jesus didn’t just happen to tell a story in which there were 9 Jewish lepers and 1 Samaritan leper. He was far too clever—and subversive!

So why was the Samaritan leper affected differently by his cure? Well, for one thing, the other nine were no longer outcasts. All it took were for their bodies to be healed and they could enjoy life with other Jews like themselves again. The Samaritan leper, though cured, was still an outsider. The Jewish community would still not include him. Once again, the outsider receives a special gift from God. As if he were once blind, the Samaritan now sees. He understands the relationship between God and this man, Jesus. The other nine would probably be thanking God in the temple–if they got the proper clearance from the religious authorities. For the Samaritan, who wouldn’t be allowed in any way, there was no need to go to the temple.

Luke writes that he “turned back.” Now the Greek word translated as “turned back” can mean “to return.” But it can also mean “to repent.” My guess is, since Luke uses this word so often in his gospel, that “repent” is what he’s talking about. Repenting/ being cleansed–it’s just too clever not to be on purpose. So, the Samaritan turns back to God and meets God’s healing word in the flesh. It seems to me that Luke understood Jesus to be saying that healing isn’t just about being cured. Being healed is being made whole. For the Samaritan leper, the broken pieces of his life were put together. He could now be at peace with himself, others, and God. And when the Samaritan realized the magnitude of the gift he was given, the gift itself led him to feel a rush of gratitude. This pure gratitude flowed from him with no hesitation, no qualification, and no humiliation. He was healed, but more importantly, he experienced salvation.

We may feel like “resident aliens,” but we have been offered a permanent green card to carry on Christ’s work in the world.  Like Jeremiah told the Babylonian exiles, moaning about what we have lost – the days when the sanctuary pews were full and church membership brought status rather than suspicion or ridicule serves no purpose. God created us for a purpose. Christ has called us for a purpose. Waiting for something good to happen to us, our troubles to be solved, or our afflictions to be healed serves no purpose. As disciples, as the Church, our task is to allow God to heal us and then go out into the world and do likewise. Gratitude is transformative. May our gratitude for all that God has given us, inspire us to be faithful and active participants in our calling.

Amen. May it be so!



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
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