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[Chalice] Grace in Unexpected Places [Chalice]

Presented December 17, 2006, by Dr. Hemchand Gossai

Reading: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-9

1These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. . . .
4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take 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. 7But 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. 8For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

Reading: Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!' 14When he saw them, he said to them, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, 'Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?' 19Then he said to him, 'Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.'


In my estimation, I believe that the moments that finally give our lives ultimate meaning and definition are moments of pain and suffering---there is, I submit, something remarkably universal about suffering. Of course we should not simply go looking for this in some kind of bizarre masochistic way, but rather we cannot and must seek to run away and find ourselves in a state of denial. We cannot wish away the fear, the drama of exile, the pain of wilderness; the loneliness of being on the margin---these are realities that give us definition. For finally, we must come face to face with the realities that are painful. I have thought about this idea for a long time---often, off and on. There have always been times when those who have gone before us have had to face such seemingly insurmountable realities and find a true way of living through it, if not surviving the time.

We live in a time when far too many people, typically religious people often of a particular inclination, have imagined that we live in a time that is on the brink of ushering in the end of the world.

Two things come to mind here, at least two things, that I believe must be reckoned with:

First, many who embrace such an idea have somehow lost track of history. It is as if whatever suffering and tragedy the world faces today, and there is of course much, is somehow greater than ever before. Yet, somehow so much in the past that has transpired in the world often under the aegis of religious institutions has been devastatingly painful. Despite what is being peddled as signs of the end times, this is hardly the first time that we have brought pain to each other and have to face the consequences of our actions. But those who have made decisions and pursued actions have not only blinded themselves to history but have stubbornly tied themselves to a rhetoric of self righteousness and death.

Second, to imagine the world is on the threshold of the end---whatever that means, is to put it somewhat inelegantly, nothing but a copout. It is a cheap and cowardly choice not to face the realties of our lives and those of our neighbors. To face the realities that we have brought onto ourselves is to have courage, and not to try to escape into another world.

The words we heard from Jeremiah are a part of his Letter to the Exiles---not welcome words---a letter perhaps that we who live today might do well to receive and embrace. Jeremiah is relentless and painful in his words, and uniquely and remarkably he lived them; I believe that his is a. life for today; his is a message for today. There are moments in one's life where one must respond to a call, even though it might have the prospects of pain and difficulty. He did, and the invitation to do likewise has a current relevance. God would not leave Jeremiah alone; Jeremiah would not leave the people alone; the words of Jeremiah would not leave us alone.

So we live these words, week after week, day after day; moment after moment, and they will not leave us, and for a while we are breathless, but then we must again breathe and live these words. There is no way to escape, no way to dismiss, no way to cast them in the shadows. The words resound; they ricochet; they resonate; they are relentless.

I must say particularly those on the Religious Right the message cannot be diluted or recast to simply fit what one's particular ideology is. The message from Jeremiah might be from the 6th Century; but finally, in this day and age, this is about us.

We must face some things about ourselves here. There are themes that make this message not only relevant and pointed, but painful. And like Jeremiah, this message will not let us go. For us, for a nation where many feel isolated and in various states of wilderness, we dare not take these words and clean them up and recast them to make those with power and privilege feel better.

This is our story; we have inherited it and we have a memory and we have a future. This is for us, a community such as we have here of various expressions of faith; a community that opens itself up to all; a community that sees that organic connection between belief and action, that begs us to reflect and understand what it means to hear these prophetic words again and again, and what happens when we do not attend to it. What does it mean for a prophet to plead with the leaders to think of the greater good of others? What does it mean for a prophet to think of God as a creator God, as Jeremiah did in his day and the leaders cast him aside?

All the people including those who were innocent are taken into exile; the innocent suffer along with the guilty because the leader closed his eyes and his ears to the prophet. Occasionally, there is a scattering before there is unity; brokenness and pain before restoration and redemption.

Perhaps on TV there are those who will tell us when Jesus is coming again soon, for a price; perhaps there are those who tell us that they have God's ear. But we have heard the word with our own ears, and we are told that there will be an exile and don't make plans. Put away your suitcases and begin to live where you have been planted.

Could God not grow trees in exile? Could God not have flowers bloom in exile? Could God not make families grow in exile?

There will be no asking of "when". For "when" is forever. There will be no counting of the days - there will be one thing - live your life fully with all people including those who are on the margins - for a while there will be no homecoming. You can't go home again, not for a while at least. For a long while Jerusalem will lie dormant and Babylon will be your home. Make a life - perhaps there will be moments when you will have to sit by the River of Babylon and weep---wherever our Babylon might be. Then you must.

In this journey you must with live with each other; you must care for each other, and most of all you must have the welfare of the city of exile in mind. Yet, is this not pouring salt in our wounds, O God? How can we be asked to love the enemy? How can we look in the eyes of our captors?

Well that is exactly it, for you must look into the eyes of the city, and to do that you must be close, for how goes their lives, their welfare, so will yours be. This is too much to bear O God, how can we possibly love the enemy? We sit, we weep, we want vengeance on our captors! How can we love these people? These outsiders? These foreigners who do not believe as we do? Can there be anything good in these people?

So, build homes, get married, have children and grandchildren, plant trees. Pray for the city and seek its welfare, seek its peace, seek its goodness, seek its wholeness and wellness. Your destiny is tied to theirs. Perhaps in so doing you might become a source of grace unawares and receive grace in unexpected places.

It is easy to separate ourselves; it is easy to cast derisions against the enemy. Yet, each of us has our personal illnesses that we carry---outward and inward. What incurable conditions do we bring to the community? Who among us has not at sometime wanted to isolate ourselves from the world in which we live? Yet, this is our world, the world that we have been granted, and so we stand on the inside and look into the eyes of those what seek to do us ill.

The division that we have created artificially to separate must be broken down. New walls that have been built under the guise of protection and preservation must now come down. For our destinies are tied to each other. For those who have felt themselves protected and have benefited from the walls of separation, literally and figuratively, this is a surely a painful message. For all of us come with a quality of brokenness.

We finally do not know how the heart responds after being healed or cleansed; touched and embraced. So live and dwell and let your lives bring wholeness to the other. In the matter of the heart, we cannot be sure. The very encounter between Jesus and the ten lepers underline how societal conventions are kept. There are those who are not welcome in the midst of the pure and the well. They must keep their distance. We should not be surprised that these are lepers used in this parable---not ten persons with "socially acceptable diseases", but lepers, physical disease and social illness, outcasts. The lepers had both issues - a disease and illness, physical pain and social stigma. Yet, even those who have been cast aside by society can be healed from a distance. For healing and belonging is for all. Sometimes pain and suffering, illness and disease, exile and wilderness make strange bedfellows, for we are told by Luke that ten lepers, Jews and Samaritans came together. Their incurable disease brings them together.

We have seen this often in our nation where in times of pain and national tragedy, we come together as a people, where religion and ethnicity, race and class collapse under the weight of a common bond; where we can weep together and rest our weariness on each other and rest. We walk together in our sorrow. Even our words have the potential to bring ruin and separateness. Do not bring ruin to others by what we say; and the temptation is great. So let us our words heal.

So on this day, far removed from the exile in Babylon and a people pained and broken hearted and a prophet delivering a message of wholeness that seems even more painful that the very exile itself; on this day far removed from the encounter on the road between Galilee and Damascus, where from a distance the eyes of Jesus, and the ears of Jesus, and the words of Jesus said yes and brought healing to the outcasts of his time who carried an incurable disease; on this day when we come together as a community, with that which we have in common, that which unites us; what incurable illness do we have that binds us together and so often painfully cast us on the outside? For finally it does not matter whether one is a Samaritan, or a Jew; Christian or Muslim; Jerusalem or Babylon or the West Bank, Baghdad or Tehran or Washington.

Yes, Jeremiah and Luke are clear, do not separate yourselves and do not ostracize others and cast them away. But first, we must, like the ten lepers, be willing to walk together, live together, and seek healing together; like the exiles and the captors live together, and bring wholeness where it seems impossible.

Response in gratitude and praise will make one whole. How does the heart respond to being cleansed? How does the heart respond to being made whole? Gratitude is how! Regardless if we are exiles journeying from Jerusalem to Babylon, or journeying with Jesus from Galilee to Damascus, or in the starkly divided lands of Israel and Palestine, or Tehran or Washington we must bring healing and wholeness, for our destinies are inseparable.

One leper came back, a Samaritan, imagine that, a Samaritan to give thanks.

©2006 Dr. Hemchand Gossai

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Gossai, Dr. Hemchand. 2006. Grace in Unexpected Places, /talks/20061217.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.