Choosing Peace

2022-10-9 Sermon “Choosing Peace”                                                          
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, 11-13   /   Luke 17:11-19
What do I mean by “choosing peace?” It’s realizing when something is stealing our peace, like  fear, pain, anger, unforgiveness, guilt, grief, and so on, and deciding to focus instead on what God has for us, the peace that passes understanding through Christ Jesus.
Being upset can almost feel like your soul’s on fire. Here’s an easy way to remember what to do, a play on the fire safety slogan, Stop, Drop and Roll. Instead, Stop, drop and pray. Stop the vicious cycle of ruminating on whatever is bothering you, drop what you’re doing, and pray that God will give you peace. God is always there to help us, guide us, and bring us peace through the Holy Spirit living in us. The grace and forgiveness of Christ relieves guilt, allowing us to forgive ourselves. The power of the Holy Spirit can help us forgive and love others, be kind, good, and gentle, and have the self-control to return to God again and again to ask for help and to be filled with peace and joy. You can have joy even when you don’t have happiness. Happiness is dependent on what “happens” to you, your circumstances. The joy of the Lord is our strength, always bringing us back to love and gratitude. When we fear, we can remember that God says, “Fear not!” 365 times in the Bible,  once for every day of the year. Even when times are tough, we can find things to be grateful for. If we have food, water, clothing and shelter, we’re better off than many people are.
Jeremiah was a prophet who’d been talking about gloom and doom to the Israelites for years, warning them to straighten up and fly right. They didn’t listen. They didn’t change. So God allowed the Babylonians to conquer them. Jeremiah wrote this passage to the survivors of the invasion and sacking of Jerusalem. They had been forcibly uprooted and taken to Babylon, a foreign land with different languages, customs and culture. They brought nothing with them. They left behind the bodies of their loved ones who died, their wounded relatives who died along the journey, their homes, gardens, and businesses. They were injured both physically and mentally, traumatized and homesick, wishing that they’d paid more attention when God warned them they would be in trouble unless they  changed their ways. God had been extremely patient with them, spending almost 1000 years sending them prophets who told them to repent, to follow the one true God rather than worshiping idols.
Now they were reaping the consequences they had earned. They had no choice but to live in a strange place they hated. God told them through Jeremiah that they should create full lives in their new situation, building houses, planting gardens, having families. More than that, however, God instructed them to pray for the welfare and prosperity of their city, because in its welfare lay their own. Not only did they experience upheaval and change unlike anything they’d ever known, but God wanted them to pray for their conquerors, the very people who took them there!
I don’t know about you, but praying for someone who’s made my life miserable is a very challenging task for me. The Israelites had to experience the grief of losing their homeland and adapt to a new place without knowing how long they’d live there. God told them through Jeremiah to take wives and give their sons and daughters in marriage so they might also conceive. This implies that the original exiles wouldn’t live to see the return to Israel. God cared enough to want them to have peace and prosperity in spite of their new surroundings, but they had to change their ways and teach their children to be faithful to the God they had ignored. They had to choose peace, peace of mind and the peace that comes only from dependence on God. They had to adapt so their descendants would survive to be blessed with a new place, and eventually, with a new covenant through Jesus Christ.
God had been as patient as only a supernatural being can be. And yet, even though the people failed to repent despite centuries of warnings, God did not abandon them or forsake them. Just as God had provided animal skins for Adam and Eve to keep them warm after they did the one thing God asked them not to do and they were banned from the garden of Eden, God also provided the Israelites with loving care and concern. God punished them, but didn’t neglect them, helping them to thrive. God promised the Israelites hope and a future, promised to be there when they prayed and called, to be waiting and ready where they could find God if they sought him with all their hearts. God is love, and must be desired with a wholehearted caring similar to what God lavishes on us. God wants us to prosper, to flourish. Like any decent parent, God wants us to listen to directions for our own good, so the truth will protect us from the consequences of bad choices. God allows bad things to happen, sometimes plays a role in them, but still grieves with us in our pain. Our disobedience breaks God’s heart on our behalf.
This is why God sent us Jesus. God knows we can never be obedient enough on our own to merit God’s favor. We can try, and with God’s help through prayer, Bible study and positive action, we can come close to doing God’s will. But we will always fall short. We need a savior. The only way to have peace is to choose peace, to repent and choose the salvation of Jesus and the love of God. Like the lepers in Luke, we need to approach Jesus with our open sores and ask for mercy.
Ten lepers came near Jesus, but kept the six or more feet away that we’ve recently become so familiar with due to COVID. Those with leprosy were so feared that they were considered unclean and weren’t allowed to mix with non-lepers. They were isolated, required by Jewish law to announce their unclean status whenever someone else approached them, warning them away. They even had to stay away from those who used to be their families and friends until a priest could declare them to be clean. Their disease numbed a lot of their nerves, making them weak, clumsy and unaware of injuries. Imagine looking down at your arm and finding that you’re bleeding from a wound you didn’t realize you had. They could have had swelling or lumps on their skin. They looked like something out of a horror movie.
They’d heard that Jesus was a healer. He was their only hope, and it was their faith in him that made them well. When Jesus told the lepers to go show themselves to the priests, they started to obey before their healing became apparent. The passage doesn’t say how far they got before they realized they were being healed, that their sensation was returning, that their skin was clear and whole. It doesn’t matter.
In the second part of the story, one of them came back. He fell at Jesus’ feet and thanked him profusely. That man was a foreigner, a hated Samaritan, the last person a human Jewish rabbi would have expected to be grateful. I suppose when they all had leprosy, the other nine had more in common with him than with their fellow Jews and were willing to have his companionship. But they didn’t care about him enough to turn around and go back to Jesus with him.
The word “foreigner,” what Jesus called the Samaritan, was the same word found outside every Jewish temple that forbid non-Jews from entering. The man was a non-person in multiple ways. As a Samaritan, he knew more about being rejected than his fellow lepers did, another layer of painful experience that could have made him hard and led him to simply leave like the other nine lepers. And yet, he felt gratitude so profound that it could not be denied. It made him run back to Jesus like a child released from school for the summer, like an animal let out of a trap. He came back to the source of his newness of life – Jesus. He shouted, praising God, announcing his salvation instead of calling out for others to keep away. It was more important to him than getting his certificate of wholeness from the priest, even though that would change his status from outcast to accepted instantly. It was even more important to him than showing his healing to his family. First, he wanted to worship. Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.” This can also be translated, “Your faith has brought you salvation.”
When life changes dramatically, God is still with us. God still has a plan to give us hope and a future. This church has been through a lot in the last several years. Your full-time pastor left. Someone from Presbytery was less than kind to you. You scrambled to continue to worship, to do mission, to work for God in this time and place. Despite hardships you didn’t expect, you have been faithful to God. I admire you for that. I applaud you for that. And I thank you for that.
When you hired me at the beginning of the year, it was a leap of faith for all of us. To start over with someone part-time, someone less training than a full-time Teaching Elder, must have felt discouraging in some ways. And yet, the statistics show that churches who move to part-time pastors are more and more common and less likely to close. Full-time ministers are a relatively recent phenomena in the church, common only in the last couple of centuries. Even the apostle Paul had a tent-making ministry in addition to leading a church.
There are still adaptations to be made. Some people may think a part-time pastor should step up and do everything a full-time pastor does out of the goodness of her heart. It’s a learning curve from both sides. I know we’ll keep getting better at understanding what to expect from each other. I want you all to know that I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to minister to this body and appreciative of the support and love you’ve given me. I know you’ll keep trying to follow God’s will for you just as I will. I know our appreciation for each other will continue to deepen over time. I’m looking forward to the commissioning service we’ll have today after the potluck, a service that will formalize our bond as pastor and church. Together, we can choose the peace that passes all understanding as we go forward, as we approach Jesus with our sores and scars and ask him to heal us, and as we praise God in a loud voice for the healing and gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit and from each other. And all God’s people said, Amen.

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