The Challenge of Choice
Readings: Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; Luke 17: 11-19
May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
‘Seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you’ says the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah – but before we come to that, may I say thank you to the Chaplain for inviting me to preach here this morning. It is a delight and an honour and I am privileged to be here. And could I offer you an apology? You see, the University website says that the title of this sermon is, I don’t mind, but if we do have one…. You might think that is an unusual title for a sermon and to be truthful, so do I. So, if you have come expecting such a sermon, now is your moment to leave for reasons I shall explain. Visiting preachers fill in a form: name, phone number etc and then, First Lesson, Second Lesson, Psalm (optional), and sermon title. My sermon title was – and I am afraid, is – The Challenge of Choice. But, trying to be helpful, by Psalm (optional), I wrote, I don’t mind but if we do have one, and named the Psalm. And somehow, my comment on our psalmody has morphed into the title of my sermon. I suppose that, I don’t mind but if we do have one offers a choice of sorts and it is certainly a challenge as a sermon topic but Scripture isn’t very much inclined to this take or leave it approach. You, however, may, take it by staying, or leave it by going; and I will try to speak to the challenge I find in our readings, the challenge of choice.
And now, back to Jeremiah: Seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you. Jeremiah’s words set a challenge to the people to whom he speaks, a challenge which runs through into this morning’s gospel and which applies to us: the challenge of choice and choice in particular about how we behave to those whom we perceive to be different from ourselves.
Jeremiah preached to a people living in a place not of their choosing, a people displaced and exiled from their homeland in the sixth century before the birth of Jesus, a people whose descendants are the Jewish people. This sixth century exile was not the first and neither in this one nor in the previous one was everyone deported – and now bear with me for a summary potted history of the Kingdom of Israel which matters for today’s readings.
The biblical account of the Kingdom of Israel is of one kingdom, ruled over by King Saul, King David and King Solomon. Its people were the twelve tribes of Israel, descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. (As an aside, I once won a toffee bonbon in school Scripture class for being able to name them all and you can test me afterwards to see if I can still remember them). Be that as it may, after Solomon, the kingdom splits. The northern part is Israel (larger, ten tribes) the southern part is Judah (smaller, two tribes). Israel’s downfall comes in around 740 BC when Assyria invades and takes many of its people into the first exile. They become the ten lost tribes and we hear more or less no more of them except that those who were left behind and not exiled, well, their descendants are the people called Samaritans – and those of you who recall this morning’s gospel will see why this matters for us here now. Judah on the other hand survives until the Babylonians invade in the sixth century before Jesus’ birth and exiles them – and it is to these that Jeremiah speaks.
Where, then, is the challenge and where the choice? Judah’s first challenge is survival. How does the people of God remain as the people of God in a foreign land? The choice that Jeremiah invites them to make is to face that challenge quite counter-intuitively, advocating neither fight – which they had tried with disastrous consequences – nor flight – which was impossible in any case – but rather facing the facts of where they were and engaging. Seek the welfare of the city into which I have sent you, said the Lord. Establish your homes, gardens, fields and families. Do not wither but flourish – and do so not only for yourselves but also for the land in which you now are. Seek its wellbeing, work for the health and prosperity of those with whom you now dwell, and in so doing, you will find your own blossoming also.
To take such a stance is itself challenging and not without its dangers. A minority people asked to behave well to the majority: what does that mean? Does it, did it, mean, as so often for refugees to a new land, did it mean a passivity, an acceptance of ill treatment and injustice? Many first-generation immigrants, refugees and other displaced persons find themselves caught in such a cycle – and not first generation only. Many much later Jews, if I understand what I have been told aright, thought that over centuries of exile and oppression, the Jewish people had indeed lost their spirit, their chutzpah and needed to regain it by regaining their own land. Many people today living in a country in which they were not born or in which they are not the majority may well find Jeremiah’s appeal to work for the welfare of what often feels like a hostile country, in which they are not fully accepted, as challenging as did his original hearers who branded him a traitor.
But of course, although Jeremiah’s challenge was to the minority and displaced people of Judah, and although that challenge is for the good of that minority, his words also pose a challenge to the majority among whom displaced people live. That challenge, which is also a challenge for good and for mutual flourishing, is veiled here but it is arguably much harder – and so perhaps it is why the gospel poses that majority choice more openly.
It might not seem thus at first sight. Jesus too, we might think, was, in his day, a member of a minority population. And yes, he was a Jew – but under Roman occupation, he lived in a majority Jewish society but, and here is the choice, the person whom he praises is not of that majority. You remember the story well: ten lepers are healed, one returns in thanksgiving and, we read, he was a Samaritan. Interesting, no? A Samaritan. So definitely not one of the descendants of Jeremiah’s Judaeans but a descendant of one of those members of the ten lost tribes, left behind in an earlier exile. And yet, between these descendants of what, a thousand years before, the Bible tells us had been one people and one kingdom, there is little love in Jesus’ day. That in itself seems to me to pose a challenge to our contemporary society. How do we relate to one another when peoples of different ethnicities, appearance, social, educational and other backgrounds, inhabit the one land – not as newcomers or returners but simply as subjects and citizens? How does a people returning to its land treat those who have never left – and if that makes you think of the State of Israel, well, let us think not only of the many, many lands with displaced populations who may, or will, one day return but also of the fact that, for all our differences of culture, colour and creed, we are one human race.
Unsurprisingly, Jesus sets us an example, a response for us to emulate in this challenge of the choice of response. It is, after all, not only the minority Samaritan who faced a choice, and who behaved, as far as we can tell, as Jeremiah had advocated, positively towards the Jew who had healed him. The other ten also had choice: choice as to thanksgiving, choice as to generosity. Why, we might ask, did they not stick with the Samaritan who had been their companion in adversity when they would have been ostracised by everyone else and yet whom they seem to have abandoned when they were healed and could pick up their lives? Why did they not thank the Jew of their own race who had cured them? Why, indeed, did Jesus choose to heal any of them, including the Samaritan?
This is not the only gospel narrative in which Jesus chooses to respond positively to a person from an ethnic minority. Other examples include the woman from Samaria who pleads for her child’s healing and persists when Jesus at first rather rudely rebuffs her, the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenecian woman who is healed and the Roman soldier whose slave is restored. And in these narratives, we see how Jesus takes Jeremiah’s challenge to the majority population and chooses what is good. It is as if Jeremiah had said to the displaced people of Judah, Look, assume you will be able to make yourselves welcome. Trust that the people in whose land you have arrived will afford you protection before the law, common courtesy and an equality of dignity. And now Jesus shows us what that might look like: healing for the spiritually and physically sick, whatever their background, generous appreciation that even those who think differently about God as Samaritans did, can yet receive from the God of Israel and give thanks, and the courage to point out to the members of those whom in this case we might well call the silent majority that their behaviour was not great: the other nine, where are they?
Well, we of course live in times in which many of us are, in different circumstances, members of a majority or a minority. That might be a local occurrence. In many of the churches of my archdeaconry on a Sunday morning, I am usually among of a small minority of white people. It might be, in this University, that the people of Scotland are the majority. I imagine that most of us, if we are from Scotland, Ireland, Wales or England just now, ask these questions in relation to Europeans living among us, just as Europeans are asking similar questions. But there is a point at which this ceases to be a matter of individuals and becomes institutional and structural. I might be a minority in church – but everyday life, I am without doubt a member of the majority, knowing instinctively how my society works and able to access what I need. And so I, like you (for I am sure you too can see how in some circumstances you are probably among the majority), like Jeremiah’s, like Jesus’s hearers and like Jesus himself, face the challenge of choice. Do we offer trust and welcome to those who are other than we are? Do we behave either as minorities or majorities as if all persons are equal before God? It seems to me imperative that we should – and not only for the wellbeing of the world and the decrease of its battles between people who are often not so very different, but also for the good of our own souls.
Jesus’ actions in today’s gospel demonstrate with abundant clarity how beloved we are to him, whatever our background. That is the foundation of all our compassion and engagement with others: that we are beloved, so beloved that whatever we do, nothing can separate us from that love. As the Samaritan himself learned when Jesus the Jew who should have shunned him, healed him, it is on the foundation of the love with which we are loved that we in turn show love to others. And if we can hold secure in our hearts the knowledge of that love, eternal, overflowing, then we can indeed be confident in the face of all that comes our way. In the face of political turmoil, the like of which most of us have never experienced, we will respond with honest, open, generosity, channels as near as his grace will make us, for the love of the Lord. And then, where-ever and whoever the Lord sends us, we will be people who seek the welfare of the city, the family and the world to which we are sent to proclaim his glory. May it be so…