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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19


Most people go to seminary seeking some sort of satisfaction. Satisfying a bishop’s requirements, or satisfying a step of the ordination process, or satisfying intellectual and theological curiosity… I went to seminary seeking answers. I was discerning whether or not God was calling me away from the Armenian church to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

I was so excited about seminary, and truly, I loved every minute of it. I was starry-eyed from the moment I arrived on campus. After a few days of moving in and getting to know some of my fellow first-year students, we kicked off first-year orientation by being ushered into the chapel for an opening worship service for the incoming class.

When it came time for the sermon, the minister of the chapel stepped into the pulpit and gave a sermon I have never forgotten.

She told us the story of when she went off to seminary, and some strong words of warning that one of her beloved spiritual mentors shared with her. His parting words to her were something along the lines of, “Seminary is a difficult place. You get so caught up in studying God that sometimes you don’t realize how it chips away at your own faith. You’re going to experience temptation, confusion, and despair. Seminary is not for the faint of heart. I know you’re called to ministry, but when you go to seminary, don’t lose your faith.”

Sitting there listening to her, I nodded along in agreement, because I had heard similar warnings from people as I headed off to seminary. “Don’t lose your faith, seminary will test it.” As I nodded along, I also felt, deep inside, a small pit of worry: what if it happened to me? What if I did lose my faith?

And then, she said something I did not expect to hear. She said, “But here’s the thing: I hope you DO lose your faith. I hope that by studying here for the next 3 years, your faith will change and grow and mature. I hope you lose the faith you came here with. Because if you leave seminary with the same faith that you came with, we have not done our job.”

That sermon shook me out of the certainty that I had brought with me to seminary. It forced me to rethink what it meant to grow in faith. It introduced the idea that spiritual maturity is not the process of adding to the faith you already have, but losing some of it along the way, and spending some time wandering in wilderness, and finding a new way forward, different from the path you had come from.

The truth is that being in spiritual exile, finding yourself on the margins, far from what your faith used to be centered on, is actually the place where you can find God in new ways.

That might be a process that gets its most intensive treatment in a place like seminary, but it’s not restricted to the clergy alone. This is a process that all of us on any spiritual journey will – or at least should – find ourselves on at some point.

It’s a process, actually, as old as the Scriptures. It’s certainly a process that the Israelites found themselves in when the prophet Jeremiah was sent to preach to them in their exile. This was not just a physical exile for them, it was also a spiritual one. Ejected from their promised land, the Israelites found themselves weeping by the waters of Babylon, deported there by King Nebuchadnezzar. These people who believed themselves to be God’s chosen people were now forced to live among outsiders, heathens, people and circumstance not part of their covenant with God. It’s an animosity not unlike that which modern-day Israelis and Palestinians have for each other.

So perhaps you can imagine how shocking and upsetting it would be for them to be told, “seek the welfare of the city where you live in exile. In its welfare you will find your own.” To be told not just to be fruitful and thrive there, in exile, on their own, not just to “bloom where you’re planted,” but that their thriving was inextricably linked to the thriving of the very people they despised who they happened to find themselves living among – that their poisonous enemy was actually the fertile ground in which they could grow.

The people hearing Jesus’ parable about the 10 lepers would have had a similar reaction when they heard that the only righteous one of the bunch was a Samaritan. Samaritans were despised by the Jews. When Jesus says “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” he uses a very peculiar word. The Greek word used here for “foreigner” is not the more common word for foreigner, xenos (which is where we get the word xenophobia), but a word that in all of the NT only occurs here in this parable* – the word allogenys, which means “from a different seed.” Whereas xenos is a foreigner, otherwise unknown, allogenys is a person who is known, and considered different in origin. Someone who is foreign not due to geographical proximity, but on a DNA level. It is how white slaveowners in this country classified enslaved Africans, as 3/5 of a person. It was a person you didn’t even consider to be fully human. It is how Ottoman Turks and Nazi Germans spoke of Armenians and Jews. It is the kind of “othering” that isn’t curious, but visceral and violent.

The disdain for this Samaritan would have been palpable. And this is the one Jesus chooses to show what true righteousness looks like. It would have been impossible for his listeners to consider.

It is a lesson as old as Scripture that every time we think God is at the center of our own righteousness, someone reminds us that that God is found in the people and places of exile – the people and places we despise, reject, or believe to be beneath us.

The evolution of American Christianity has turned religion into something very different from the kind of religion that confronts us with uncomfortable truths. Religion, and its more nebulous cousin, “spirituality,” has turned a life of faith into a source of comfort and solace. The spiritual path has been pitched as one that will alleviate your suffering, assuage your fears, comfort the afflicted. And it’s true, this is one of the benefits or side effects of the spiritual life. One of the promises of God is that we can cast our cares upon God who comforts and cares for us.

But good religion isn’t just meant to comfort the afflicted, it’s also meant to afflict the comfortable. Whenever we come to God trusting in our own righteousness, which is another way of saying that we’ve gotten a little too cocky about our own level of faith, we have the words of Jeremiah and Jesus to remind us that the people who think they’re the most spiritually enlightened are often the most misguided.

This is an important warning to clergy! But it’s really a warning to any of us who strive to be followers of Jesus, who consider ourselves to be “spiritually enlightened,” possessing comfort and answers, satisfied with ourselves and our own spiritual knowledge and seeing others as not quite as “enlightened” as we are. Because it is exactly when we are steeped in that pride that we look around and find ourselves in exile.

And it is exactly then that God says to us, bloom where you are planted. Seek the welfare of those around you. In their welfare you find your own. Only in tearing down the walls of pride and arrogance that encircle your heart can you actually find redemption and growth.

We’re pretty lucky here at St. Michaels, that this is a church where there are lots of ways for you to grow spiritually. I know St. Michael’s is a spiritual home to many of you, and you feel God’s presence in our worship, and the love of Jesus lives in the spirit of this place.

But, my friends, I hope that in coming to St. Michael’s, you also lose your faith. I hope that you do find yourself in exile. I hope that you do know what it is to be a foreigner and an outsider. Because I hope that St. Michael’s is a place where God will not only comfort you, but also transform you.

I believe that God is calling us today, through these Scriptures, to examine our own comfort level of faith. How might God be calling you beyond what’s comfortable and into exile? How might God be inviting you to seek the welfare and the thriving of those places, so that you might find your own? How is God calling you to lose your faith, so that new faith can grow?
Because as the Scripture says: If we have died with him, we will also live with him.


*Twice in the Septuagint and once in a gnostic text.

Grace and Peace,

The Reverend Julie M. Hoplamazian
Associate Rector
St. Michael’s Church

225 West 99th Street

New York, NY 10025
In case of pastoral emergency, please dial 212.222.2700 x110
Please note that I observe a digital sabbath on Mondays.

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