Gratitude Attitude – Rev. Yena Hwang (audio available)
Exile – a condition in which you are banned from your homeland and forced to live in a foreign land as an outsider. Exile is a foreign concept to most of us. Some of us have experienced living overseas for an appointed time, for work or for study. Some of us have left our country of birth to migrate to another country and some of us are products of that migration.
However, being exiled is a qualitatively different experience altogether than the experience of living abroad or immigrating by choice.
The exilic experience was a deeply disturbing and profound experience in the history of the Israelites. When the Assyrians overthrew the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC, they took a substantial majority of the Northern Kingdom’s population into exile. Those who were deported never returned or recovered. Except for those who were left behind, who later came to be called Samaritans, all the rest of Northern Kingdom disappeared into history as the “lost tribes” of Israel.
Now, it was the Southern Kingdom’s turn to experience exile. In 597 BC, the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar took all the prominent religious and political leaders from Jerusalem and either killed or exiled them. Those who knew the fate of the Northern Kingdom feared that they would meet the same fate– never to return or recover, only to disappear from the pages of history. That is Jeremiah’s audience – the exiles who are raw, broken, fearful, and full of haunting questions. Were we more evil than those who were spared? Were we faced with the same fate as our brothers/sisters from the Northern Kingdom? Will we ever set our feet back in our home or in the Jerusalem Temple? Is this the end of our covenantal relationship with God? Has God abandoned us forever? What should be our attitude in this present situation?
To the people who were filled with fear, who were faced with a life-altering, faith-shaking, identity-losing, upside down, “It’s the end of the world” experience, Jeremiah spoke.
He spoke unexpected word that shocked the audience. He did not give false hope and say it will soon be over. He did not pacify them with only positive words about their future. He spoke truthfully about how God has promised to return them to their homeland, but it will not be immediate. Patiently trust in God’s promise to bring you back, but in the meantime, settle down for the long haul – build your life there – build your house, plant your garden, marry off your children and have grandchildren. This was surprising enough, but what he said after was shocking. Live your life – but live your life in such a way to seek the welfare of the city where you live – yes, even in your exiled state – seek the welfare of those around you – pray for them and you will be blessed.
You are displaced – but God knows exactly where you are.
You are exiled from the land, but not from God’s presence.
You are confused and hurt, but God is your healer and God calls you to live for the healing, the welfare of those whom you see as enemies.
A paradigm shift. An attitude adjustment.
Does this sound familiar with anything Jesus said? Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-45).
It’s easy to love your neighbor.
It’s normal to hate your enemy.
But, as children of God, you are to love your enemies and pray for them.
A paradigm shift. An attitude adjustment.
In our New Testament passage, we are told the story of the healing of the ten lepers. Ten lepers approach Jesus and ask for mercy. Being mindful of their status as “unclean,” they keep distance. Jesus responds by instructing them to go and show themselves to the priests. The ten do not ask for more concrete instructions – like what do I need to do once I meet the priests? Do we say you sent us? They simply obey and the healing occurs while they are on their way to see the priests. Their blind obedience to Jesus must have healed them. It’s a typical healing story…until one of them makes an unexpected turn. Upon realizing that he has been healed, he shouts praises to God – returns to Jesus, prostrates himself before Jesus and thanks him. And then, his identity is revealed – he is a Samaritan. The story concludes with Jesus recognizing and reaffirming his faith and sending him on his merry way.
Now if you are asking questions such as: Where were the other nine lepers? Why didn’t they come back to express gratitude to Jesus? The one leper who returned is identified as a Samaritan, what about the other nine? Were they too eager and excited to be restored back to their families that they neglected to come back to Jesus? Did they just accept the healing with a sense of entitlement, thus not feeling the need to express their gratitude? Is this just a reminder to us that not all who are helped by Jesus come to have faith in him?
The passage is more than just a push for believers to have common courtesy to express gratitude. There is a relationship between praise and gratitude; faith and gratitude. As theologian Karl Barth said, the basic Christian response to God is gratitude. We can only respond with gratitude for the gift of life, the gift of the world, for the people in our lives, for the gift of faith that leads us to salvation, for the gift of the community. Regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we can practice having gratitude attitude.
Then, What connection can be made between the OT and the NT passage? The people of Israel and the ten lepers experienced exile differently, in their own ways. If we are able to hear both OT & NT stories from the perspective of the exiled and the perspective of the lepers– what we hear is the Good News of God’s promise of redemptive healing, God’s promise is to heal their spiritual and physical wounds. In both cases, what is required is our faith. Faith in God’s promise to restore us. Even when that promise seems too far off, we remember to have gratitude attitude, and trust in God’s faithfulness. With gratitude attitude, we live through the between time.
We may not know the suffering and trauma of an exiled life. We may not know the isolating effects of having a terrible disease, like leprosy. However, we have experienced different forms of exile; exiled in personal relationships that has gone awry; exiled from realizing your dreams of youth; exiled from feeling secure in this unfamiliar economic landscape, exiled from the good old days gone by, exiled in a world that is changing too much at a speed we cannot catch up with, exiled from a healthy body, now a captive to a physically deteriorated mind, body, and spirit – for various reasons and times in our life, we may find ourselves forcibly existing in a land that seems strange and foreign, a situation that has us wondering: What now? How do I adapt to this new normal? Where is God in all this?
What attitude must I take on in this new spiritual landscape?
When things feel overwhelming – go to the basic Christian response –go to the gratitude attitude. This is a discipline. It’s easy to have gratitude for the good things in our lives. But, as children of God, we are to have gratitude for all of our lives; the good, the bad, the ugly, the joyful moments as well as the moments of deep sorrow, the successes as well as failures, in answered prayers as well as the unanswered prayers.
Another paradigm shift. Another attitude adjustment.
No matter what our situation may be, God’s call to us, is same to us as God’s call to the exilic community of Jeremiah’s time – build, plant, live, pray, and seek the welfare of the place we find ourselves in. God is God of all people. God is God of all situations, all circumstances. God is still working in us and through us – to bring healing to people, to work towards welfare of the larger community.
God is at work in the life of Fairfax Presbyterian Church to address our city’s need – to give voice to the voiceless, to walk alongside those are on the outskirts of our community, to address the issues that matter in our community. Issues like addressing the need for more affordable housing, providing practical assistance for the homeless, feeding the hungry, being allies to the immigrant communities, improving relationships with Muslim communities, and generally being willing to lend a hand where we can – with gratitude, we are addressing and working towards the welfare of the city.
May you live this coming week with gratitude attitude, for the work God is doing in our midst. Amen.
 Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volumn 4, page 169.