It’s a fantasy that reoccurs every four years: citizens here in the US proclaiming that they will move to some other country—usually joining our Canuck neighbors to the North—if a certain presidential candidate wins the election. While the pronouncements have been more vocal this year— including a billboard for a realtor in Charleston, SC showing the two leading candidates and the words “Moving to Canada? We can sell your home!” along with his phone number—we know that such threats are usually just a bunch of hot air. Or perhaps an escape mechanism when the world seems to be caving in all around us, and we want to find some relief. And after this weekend’s updates, no one would blame you.
Imagine, if you will then, the Israelite diaspora living in Babylon near the banks of the Euphrates River instead of in Jerusalem close to their beloved Jordan. But rather than choosing to move to this strange land due to complications back home, they’ve been forced out and made to march all the way from Israel to modern day Iraq. With each step along that nearly 1000 mile route, they likely sank deeper into depression wondering if they would ever pluck a fig from their garden again or enjoy a meal of fish and bread with their neighbors or if they’d ever be buried alongside their ancestors. When they finally arrived, a sense of foreboding permeates their lives. Conversations at the dinner table become stilted. Faces often appear streaked with tears. Birthdays pass without celebration. The one question that remains is simply “How long?” How long until we return? How long until we can leave this wretched place so far from home? How long can we endure?
And then this letter appears, addressed to the elders and priests and to all the people living in exile. The postmark is from Jerusalem, and the sender is the prophet of the Most High, Jeremiah himself. Expecting words of deliverance, of how God would come and rescue them from their enemies, they rip open the envelope as quickly as they can. However, when they read his words they are crushed. Rather than intimating how God planned to bring destruction on the Babylonians, Jeremiah declares these words from the Lord, “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.”
Their faces show their crushed spirits. Are you kidding? Build houses and plant gardens? Find a spouse and have children? Watch those children grow up and have children of their own? How long are we going to be here? And on top of all this you want me to pray for the welfare of this foreign place?
I’m sure they wanted to stamp “Return to Sender” on that envelope and toss it back in the closest mailbox. But these were the words of the Lord, thanks be to God, and the realization of an uncertain future began to settle in. God was asking them to return to the living.
Over nine years ago Melissa and I made the 1800 mile trip from where we had been living in Connecticut to the Denver area. I had been called to serve as the rector of a parish on the Front Range, and so we moved a long way from New England, Melissa’s parents and, as my spiritual director at the time so aptly pointed out, the Red Sox and struck out into a strange land. We had been quite certain that God was leading us on this journey, feeling the Spirit’s call palpably throughout the discernment process. But soon after we arrived, I began to uncover a history of secrets in that parish that hindered their growth, and I became what is known in church development circles as an unintentional interim. The work God called me to was to help them expose the past and seek healing while having conversations marked by honesty.
I wish I could tell you that all this went swimmingly, but I can’t. The details are not significant, but I can tell you that within a matter of months I longed to return home to New England, to take a mulligan and try again. But I felt God urging me to stay. I interviewed with a number of places over the course of two years, each time feeling that it wasn’t a good fit for me or having the parish tell me I wasn’t a good fit for them. The vestry at that parish and I continued our deep and healing work—even though it was tremendously difficult and very painful—trusting that God would continue to bring us closer to the place that God wanted us to be. To continue to search for redemption and grace.
Just as we began reaching a point of healing and finality in the work given to us, this parish—St. Mark’s—showed up on my job search. I tried not to get my hopes up, but this seemed like that new place that God might be calling us to join. Within a week of our reaching a conclusion in the restoration at that parish, I received the call to become your next rector. To come home.
Many clergy I know who have been in difficult situations will disparage their former parishes. It’s a defense mechanism, really, a chance to hide the hurt and pain. But I cannot do that; I know God called me there for that time in their history. The church grew and became more focused on outreach. We made deep and lasting connections. But I also will not gloss over that time and pretend that everything was hunky dory; it was not. My blood pressure went up, the stress at times unbearable. If not for a loving family and the beauty of the mountains, I might not have survived that wilderness time. But I knew then and know now that God sent me there for a reason. In the time since then, the last almost six years, have been filled with healing and grace for me and my family.
As Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, writes, “Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before, how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way.” Put another way, the painful parts of our journey can ultimately make us more grateful for life’s infinite blessings if we only take the time to notice them.
Gratitude is central to our gospel story about these ten lepers. They come seeking healing, Jesus sends them to the local priest who could proclaim them free from illness and therefore clean, and as they go they are healed. Only one doubles back. A foreigner, by the way. The undocumented immigrant. He alone turns around to express his deep gratitude. And Jesus is amazed.
Living with gratitude is a mark of disciples of Jesus. We can see, even in those times when we feel far from home, the goodness of God working in and around us.
But let me be clear for a second. I do not think that God puts us in situations that cause us physical harm or mental anguish. Sometimes when people find themselves in destructive or abusive situations or relationships they may think that God is perhaps punishing them or bringing harm on them due to some fault or sin in their own lives. This could not be further from the truth. Notice in both of our readings today that God wanted the people in them to experience fullness of life. In Babylon, the word of the Lord comes in order to encourage the Israelites to find satisfaction and joy in this new place—weddings and new births and building homes and planting a garden—God doesn’t leave them to destruction. So it is for us.
Yet that doesn’t mean that life will always be filled with superabundance, that if somehow you have hit a rough patch or are in a strange land then you are outside God’s care. I simply cannot say that is the gospel truth. God longs for all of us to experience a fullness of life even in the midst of the hardest times, and life is marked by the wilderness experiences.
God longs for us to look for the things bringing us that life and to be grateful for them. God calls us to live lives marked by gratitude and thankfulness, remembering to see the goodness of God in the present moment. To be filled with joy at the sound a of a baby’s laugh, to recognize the bounty given when we sit down for a meal. It’s in being filled with awe at the love of someone we cherish and in seeing the deep red of the leaves turning on the maple. It’s in all the big and small ways that grace enters into our lives.
Will we take the time, even in the places we least expect to find ourselves, to give thanks? Will we recognize God’s goodness in the midst of our lives at all times and in all places? Will we show forth our thanks, our gratefulness, our praise? God longs for us enjoying the blessings of this life and in turn sharing those blessings with the world. Will we live into this mark of being a disciple and express our gratitude knowing that every good and perfect gift comes from our Creator? Will we double back to say our thanks? Will we, you and I, live our lives as living signs of gratitude to God? Amen.