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October 14, 2001
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Jeremiah writes to the exiles in Babylon that they will be there for a long while. In their exile, they are to seek the welfare of the city, and to pray on its behalf, "for in its welfare you will have welfare." Those who received the letter would have been dismayed, for their hope and expectation was that their exile would be short, and they could return home again. The prophet dashes their hopes with realism, and in fact, the exile lasted 70 years. The major point for preaching this text is in the instruction to work and pray for the welfare of the city. They were not allowed to ignore the city because it was, after all, "foreign," and they identified primarily with another place. In process terms, the interdependence of persons within the city whether or not they "belong" there is stressed. How, then, do we regard our cities? Is the city no more than the place where we go to do our "work," retreating to our suburban homes at night? And what is the welfare of the city? The text forces us to examine our congregational and personal responsibility to and for our cities.
Paul weaves encouragement and doctrine together in this passage to young Timothy. The basic theme is our identification with Christ’s death and resurrection. In our own suffering, we are reminded of Christ’s suffering. By our baptism and our faith, we are united with his suffering. But what we learn of his suffering is that neither the physical nor spiritual pain of the crucifixion could extinguish the love of God manifest in Jesus. His words on the cross were caring of his crucifiers, his fellow sufferers, his disciples, his mother. Love is stronger than death. To be joined in his suffering, then, is to open ourselves to the love of God that flows through us no matter what suffering we endure. And "if we died with him, we shall also live with him." No evil is final; we live in the resurrection power of God. Therefore, even in the midst of suffering, we are to diligently prepare ourselves for the tasks to which God calls us.
The Luke story tells of the ten lepers who were cleansed, and the one leper who returned to give thanks. The twist in the story is that the one who gave thanks was not—as would be expected—one of "our own," but a marginalized Samaritan. There are a variety of ways to learn from the story. First, in interdependent existence, our acts of caring are not to be limited to those who are like ourselves. To the contrary, we are called to alleviate suffering wherever it exists, regardless of the nationality or religious beliefs of those who suffer. Second, we have no grounds for dismissing those who differ from us—rather, we should be open to learning from them, for lessons in gratitude and praise come from unexpected places. Third, the fullest form of health is spiritual as well as physical. The leper was physically healed—but his gratitude showed a spiritual strength that contributed to the fullness of his healing. "Your faith," said Jesus, "has made you well."
Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki is Professor Emerita, Claremont School of Theology, co-director of Process Studies, and the author of several books, including Divinity and Diversity, God Christ Church, and In God's Presence. She is the director of the annual Whitehead International Film Festival, held in Mudd Theatre during Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend and also teaches a Faith & Film class during this event.