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In the Midst of Exile

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Oct 09

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Luke 17:11-19

In 1866, during the reign of King Kamehameha V, the Hawaiian legislature created a leper colony on the island of Molokai. At the time, leprosy—or Hansen’s disease—was little understood and believed to be highly contagious and incurable and so, Hawaiians with leprosy were quarantined to the small town of Kalaupapa on the north coast of Molokai. Mandatory isolation finally came to an end in 1969 and the town is now part of Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

You may know the story of Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium who, in 1873, went to minister among the residents of the colony. He lived among the exiles there, ultimately contracted Hansen’s disease himself, and died in 1889. In 1883, Father Damien was joined by Sister Marianne Cope, a nun from the Sisters of Saint Francis, who also lived in Kalaupapa until her death, but never contracted the disease. In recognition of this profound gift of lives devoted to caring for outcasts, both were canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. A remarkable story of casting one’s lot with “the least of these.”

I’m sure Hanson’s disease was so stigmatizing and so feared because it not only causes severe nerve damage, but can also be disfiguring. In fact, Hansen’s disease is not very contagious. Caused by a slow-growing mycobacterium, these days it can be treated effectively with an antibiotic cocktail. But that is the current state of things.

In Jesus’ time, leprosy resulted in social isolation. Referring not only to Hansen’s disease, but probably to a wide variety of disfiguring illnesses, leprosy made persons “unclean.” This is a both a social category and a religious designation, with the result that persons considered unclean were barred from regular participation in religious life, and sometimes even banished from family and community. In the time of Jesus, those with leprosy were considered outcasts, and as they moved about town they were expected to shout out, “unclean, unclean!” as a kind of warning to any with whom they might come in contact.

In our gospel reading from Luke there are several striking things. First and foremost, this is a story about gratitude. Ten lepers are healed. Ten are restored to health, to the fullness of life, able to be reunited with family and society. Ten are made clean. But only one returns to give thanks. What—we want to ask—is different about this one? What puts him in the ten percent for whom this healing becomes a full-blown faith event? Why does praise pour from his lips, alone? What makes him turn back to Jesus?

It’s notable that this one is a Samaritan—already an outsider. Is there something about this that allows him to notice the grace that is flowing toward him? Perhaps. We will never really know what was going on inside him that made him so receptive to the amazing grace of this healing.

I suspect a most helpful question for us as we hear Luke’s text is to ask, ‘How thankful are we?’ How often do we stop and notice the blessedness in our lives, not only the welcome incidents of healing, but even more, the gifts of wholeness and friendship and community? Are we grateful for the fullness of life that is God’s vision for us? As one author notes, “There is something about the practice of thankfulness that enlarges, blesses, and restores us.” (1) Luke reminds us that gratitude itself is a spiritual practice and a gift.

In this particular story, Jesus does not touch the lepers—they “keep their distance” as was expected of them. But elsewhere in Matthew and Luke, Jesus actually lays his hands on lepers in order to effect healing. (2) Perhaps Jesus’ bold practice of touching the untouchables was where Father Damien and Sister Marianne Cope found inspiration for their ministries in Kalaupapa.

One final thing I noticed this week, in reflecting on the Lukan text, is that the lepers have already formed a community when they come to Jesus for healing. The ten lepers are in exile together. We can imagine them gathering just outside the city gates, keeping the required distance. But it’s important that they have found each other and are not simply individuals wandering about it total isolation.

Being stigmatized (and even feared) can be a powerful force for building meaningful community. I think of the Somali communities—mostly Sunni Muslims—that have sprung up in U.S. cities. Enclaves of exiles from their own countries, in places like St. Paul, MN and Columbus, OH, (3) not always entirely welcome in this land of their exile.
I think of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. In my lifetime, the most poignant example of something which—like leprosy—was little understood and greatly feared. Some of you remember, too. The confusion about how HIV was spread. Could you get it from breathing the same air? From sharing a cup or sharing food? Or simply touching someone? In the U.S. some people began to call it the “gay disease” and used the AIDS epidemic as further justification for judging and ostracizing gay men.

And of course, until it was fully understood, AIDS ripped through the gay community, creating an epidemic of loss. It was a painful time. Too many funerals, as friends and loved ones succumbed to the virus. But also galvanizing as the communities most effected drew together, creating communities of care. Networks that served like extended family in a time of trauma: bolstering, encouraging and supporting each other. Hospices sprang up, where there was deep compassion and tender care. A community in crisis, but also a little taste of God’s kingdom in the most dismal circumstances.

So far this morning, we’ve explored only the text from Luke. But let’s take a look at Jeremiah. There’s something provoking and inviting about the lectionary pairing of these two texts. They speak of two radically different kinds of exile.

First, there’s the kind of exclusion we’ve talked about already. The exile of individuals from their communities, separated and ejected over stigmas of illness, status, religion or culture, or some kind of visible difference.

Jeremiah, in contrast, tells the story of a whole people exiled from their homeland. The Israelites swept up by geo-politics. They were a people conquered in war, and dragged off to a foreign land by the victorious Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. This is the exile which caused the psalmist to write,

On the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s Song
in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

You can hear the agony of the Israelites in captivity. They ask, “Why is this happening to us? Where is God? When shall we be free? And how now shall we live?”

Jeremiah’s prophetic words address the Israelites in captivity, urging them to settle into the land and to flourish there, even though they are in exile. How then shall will live? Flourish and pray; God cherishes you and wills for you abundance and joy.

What you can’t tell from reading these few short verses, is that Jeremiah is responding directly to Hananiah, a false prophet, who has predicted that the end of Babylonian exile will come in a couple of years. How seductive his words must have been—the promise of deliverance and return to their homeland, of self-governance and the comfortable familiarity of their own ways!

And how jarring—Jeremiah’s prophecy—which gives no such assurances! His words are not a vision of immanent liberation and return, but of thriving while in exile. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and husbands; have sons and daughters and give them in marriage.” Such striking words! A vision of human flourishing.

Jeremiah says to Israel, in effect, your blessedness, your well-being, your belovedness does not depend on your external circumstances. God is with you even now—in the midst of exile—loving you and calling you to God’s purposes.

As different as these two stories may seem, the readings from Luke and Jeremiah both tell us about the kingdom of God. They declare God’s blessing and God’s desire for our wholeness and fullness of life. No matter what our circumstances. Whether we experience illness or stigma or rejection or exile, God’s invitation is to blessing and goodness, from generation to generation.

One of the New Testament Greek words for healing means, literally, to make whole. I like that because it suggests something fuller than physical healing. A deeper wellness that is spiritual and social, that connects and creates relationships, and builds community. We have all seen people whose bodies are defeated by disease, but whose spirits are filled with grace and peace. And we all know communities whose doors are open to all sorts of folks—people of different backgrounds and abilities and statuses. Sometimes, even, the church is like this—a little taste of God’s kin-dom in the midst of a broken and hurting world.

Can we be this for each other, and for God? A place to sing out praise for God’s blessings? A place of welcome, where we know that stigma and ostracism are part of the social world, but not part of God’s intention? A place where we speak of God’s love no matter what?

As a hospice volunteer in the 1990s I sat at the beside of a Catholic priest who was dying of AIDS. The marks of Kaposi’s sarcoma outwardly visible on his body, he was no longer conscious, having slipped into the deep sleep that precedes death. The priest had a small group of friends who were sitting vigil with him in these last hours, but I found him alone in a quiet moment. What to do, except watch and pray? I didn’t know enough about him to have any particular insight into his relationship to God or the church, but I found myself singing a simple Latin chant:

Ubi caritas, et amor/ Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.
Where there is love, the Spirit of God is present.

In illness, in exile, even in death, where there is love, the Spirit of God is present.

1) Debie Thomas, “Living by the Word,” p. 20 in Christian Century, Sept 12, 2016
2) Matthew 8:3 and Luke 5:12-16
3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somali_Americans. The heaviest concentrations of Somalis in the US are found in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul), followed by the Columbus, Ohio, Seattle, San Diego, Washington, D.C., New York City, Portland, Maine and San Francisco metro areas.

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