See and Be Thankful – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell a parable about a poor man named Lazarus and a rich man who went nameless.  As I preached that week, I told you that I thought that parable was all about seeing.  The rich man saw Lazarus and chose to ignore him.  Jesus is very interested in who we see and how we see them.  Last week, Keith preached on a difficult text in which we find the disciples begging Jesus for just a little more faith.  Through a great story about Murdoch and his never-ending bag of supplies, Keith showed us that the key to growing our faith is giving thanks to God for what we already have.  This week, the Lectionary has been kind to us.  For those of you who maybe missed one or both of the last two weeks, or perhaps don’t remember those two pretty great sermons, we have a lesson this morning that is all about both seeing and thankfulness!

Parable season takes a break so that we can jump into some narrative action to keep the story of Jesus moving forward.  Since late June, we’ve been following Jesus on a long and winding journey toward Jerusalem.  Rather than taking the easy way that might have taken a few days, Jesus made it a point to stop at every city, town, and village between here and there.  Today, we find Jesus and his disciples on the edge of civilization; somewhere in the no man’s land between Galilee and Samaria.  Galilee was a Jewish district that bordered the Sea of Galilee to the east, and it included towns like Capernaum, Nazareth, and Nain.  Unless you went out of your way to travel right down the banks of the Jordan River, in order to get to Jerusalem from Galilee, you had to go through the dreaded district of Samaria.  Samaria was, as you might guess, the home of the Samaritans.  During the Babylonian Exile, most of Israel’s brightest and best were taken as slaves to Babylon.  Those who were left behind had to make due as best they could.  The Temple and the entire city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, so they began to worship God at a new Temple on the top of Mount Gerizim.  Rather than marry within their own family, they married people from other groups that the Babylonians had moved in to Israel.  When the Exile was over and the Israelites returned to rebuild Jerusalem, they found the Samaritans to be contemptuous and for hundreds of years the animosity between the two groups grew as small skirmishes over land took place between the tribes.  By the time of Jesus, a Jew wouldn’t even dare talk to a Samaritan, and would go out of his way to avoid traveling through Samaria.

It is right there, at the disputed divide between these two ethnic groups that we find Jesus.  Not yet in the safety of the walls of the next village on his journey, Jesus is approached by ten lepers.  This was about as far out of bounds as a good Jew could get: on a small road between two villages, near the border with Samaria, and in the presence of a colony of lepers.  The lepers knew their place.  They were unclean: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  For fear of spreading their awful disease, Levitical law ordered that lepers be kept removed from society, forced to live on the edge of town.  They had to wear tattered clothing, keep their hair uncombed, and walk around shouting “unclean, unclean!”  These ten men were actually quite lucky to have found each other; otherwise, they would have been forced to live lives of total isolation.  Still, they keep their distance.

They must have already heard about Jesus because rather than cry out “Unclean, unclean!” they shouted “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Jesus didn’t simply hear their cry, but Luke tells us that Jesus “saw them.”  Perhaps for the first time since their diagnosis, someone saw them as something more than unclean lepers.  Instead, Jesus saw them as beloved children of God.  He had compassion on them, and sent them to find a priest to be declared clean again.  As they made the journey to the local synagogue, their skin was miraculously made clean.  Nine of them continued to follow Jesus’ instructions and headed off to see the priest, but one saw things differently.

As the tenth leper looked at his newly restored skin, he saw his blessing and was compelled to give thanks.  He turned and ran back to find Jesus, giving praise to God all along the way.  When he found Jesus again, the man fell on his face, in a posture of worship, and gave thanks.  The word Luke uses there is eucharisto, which might sound familiar to you.  Eucharist is the name we Episcopalians give the Lord’s Supper because it too is an act of thanksgiving.  Each week, when we come to this table, we do so not just in remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made for our sins upon the cross, but like the tenth leper, we come here fully aware of the many ways in which God has healed us and restored us to right relationship.  Maybe you come to give thanks for being healed of a lifetime of isolating anxiety.  Maybe you come to give thanks for being healed of anger that has ruined relationships.  Maybe you come to give thanks for being healed of addiction that had pushed everyone away.  Or maybe, you aren’t quite there yet.  Maybe you approach this altar rail like the ten lepers, keeping a safe distance, and crying out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on me.” Jesus sees you, no matter how alone you may feel.

Jesus saw all ten lepers totally isolated even within their little community.  He had mercy on them and healed them.  By the end of this story all ten were healed of their disease, but it was only the tenth leper who saw the blessing in his healing and gave thanks.  In returning to give thanks, this man was doubly blessed.  No longer a leper, we find out that this man is a Samaritan.  Maybe that’s why he didn’t run off to the synagogue.  He knew he wouldn’t be welcome there anyway.  Instead, he returned to the source of his healing, praised God, and gave thanks, and Jesus said to him, “Get up and go, your faith has saved you.”  Ten lepers were healed by Jesus.  Nine were restored to their communities when a priest declared them “clean.”  Only one was saved, rescued, made whole.

By the grace of God, through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have all been set free from our bondage to sin.  That could easily be enough.  We could, like the nine, rest comfortably on that gift for the rest of lives, but we are invited to experience something more.  We are invited to see, to really see the gift that God has given us.  To feel what it means to be set free.  To live abundant lives.  To find our place in the kingdom.  When we see that gift, the only logical response is eucharisto, to bow down in worship and praise, and to give thanks to God for all that he has done for us.  It is in that place of thanksgiving that we find ourselves saved, rescued, and made whole.  It turns out that Keith and I have been on the right track for the past two weeks.  The life of faith really is all about seeing and giving thanks.  It is about how we see others, yes, but the life of faith is also about how we see ourselves: with thanksgiving for being set free from the isolation of sin and restored to right relationship with God and one another.  Open our eyes Lord, help us to see the gifts that you have given us, and give thanks.  Amen.

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Given to Good Works

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. – Collect for Proper 23

Several years ago, there was a viral story making its way around the intertubes about Pastor Jeremiah Steepek who supposedly dressed himself up as a homeless man in front of the megachurch to which he had been recently called, to see if anyone would stop to care for him.  As the story goes, “He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service….only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food… NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.”

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Much righteous indignation followed this post around the internet, especially among Mainliners who were certain that their church would have been better to Pastor Steepek’s alter ego than those feel good evangelicals.  For those who were intent on thumbing their nose at evangelicalism, Christianity, or organized religion in general, it didn’t much matter that the story wasn’t actually true, it proved the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

This Sunday, Episcopalians around the world will pray that we might be “given to good works,” a phrase that feels unnecessarily archaic, but means that through God’s grace, we hope to be predisposed to helping our neighbor.  This prayer is absolutely lovely in theory, but like the members of the fake Pastor Steepek’s church, I wonder if we really want to deal with what it means.  Because what Sunday’s Gospel lesson tells us we are praying for is the ability to see the people that we would rather not see.  We are praying to see the injustices that we would rather ignore.  We are praying to see the works of the Devil that we would rather explain away.  We are praying to see things that will break our hearts and motivate us to act in ways that will take us far from our comfort zones.

Being “given to good works” sounds nice, but when it comes right down to it, good works aren’t always easy, fun, or even, safe.  Still, let us pray for the grace to see the world in all its brokenness, to be moved to action, and be given to good works.

Boarderlands

In the northeast of France there is a small sliver of land known to history as Alsace-Lorraine.  Known for it industrial strength in the latter half of the 19th century, Alsace-Lorraine became a coveted piece of property for the Germans who ultimately took it from France after winning the Franco-Prussian War. For 47 years, from 1871 until 1918, it was a part of the German Empire.  For most of that time, Germany ruled Alsace-Lorraine with great attention, for fear of losing it back to France.  After World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, France reclaimed its territory, but realizing that 47 years and some continued German interest during World War was enough to establish some pretty distinct habits, the French government gives Alsace-Lorraine a lot of autonomy, allowing local law to reign.   Such is the messiness of a borderland.

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While on his way from Galilee, where much of his teaching took place, to Jerusalem, where he would be betrayed, tortured, crucified, and buried, Jesus and his disciples had to pass through the unseemly territory of the Samaritans.  Like Alsace-Lorraine, Samaria was something of a disputed territory.  The Samaritans were descendants of the Jews, but were those who had been left behind in the Babylonian Exile.  They married those outside of Judaism, they adjusted their worship in light of the destruction of the Temple, and because of that, they were resoundingly hated by the Jews.  That this unclean territory existed between Galilee and Judea meant that there was a wide swath of borderland to pass through as one traveled between the two.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus precisely in that messy place; en route to Judea, he is somewhere between Galilee and Samaria.  To make matters worse, and to clarify that he really was in no man’s land, Jesus and his disciples happen upon a leper colony.  In all of history, there might be no more an in-between place than a leper colony on the border between the Jews and the Samaritans.  You might not want to waste as much time as I have on this borderland thing, but the placement of this story geographically is worth noting.  The preacher might want to help her congregation see just how “out there” Jesus is in this moment because while we read this story as being about forgiveness, if we focus on  Jesus, then this story is all about crossing boundaries.

With compassion, Jesus reaches across the boundaries of geography, of politics, of religion, in order to care for those who have been permanently placed in no man’s land.  They have been removed from society.  They no longer have an identity beyond “leper.”  Note that the tenth leper who returns to give thanks isn’t identified as a Samaritan until after his healing takes place.  These lepers weren’t even considered human beings.  And yet, Jesus sees them.  He treats them as worthy of love and care.  In that place of in-betweeness, Jesus heals them, restores their humanity, and makes them whole.

Repentance Requires Action

A good deal of my personal idiomatic dictionary revolves around the Simpsons, but only really from the period of about seasons 5-9.  I quit watching the show with any regularity while I was in college, but it had long since done its job to embiggen my vocabulary with perfectly cromulent words.  During season 8 there was an episode entitled “Bart after Dark,” in which Bart, after breaking a gargoyle at what turns out to be a burlesque house, has to work the front door in order to pay off the damage.  Hilarity ensues, of course, especially when Grandpa Simpson comes through the front door.

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If you watch that gif closely, you can see in Grandpa Simpson’s eyes the moment that repentance takes place.  Which leads me to the Bible because, of course it would.

Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson, disjointed as it may be, is a perfect story of repentance.  It even uses the Hebrew word “shoob” that would become the Greek “metanoia,” which is the basis of our idea of repentance.

Naaman was a hard-hearted sort of guy.  He had to be.  As a military leader, his success was dependent upon his ability to lead men into battle.  This task is not for the faint of heart, and the author of 2 Kings tells us that Naaman was very good at his job.  To top it off, he suffered from leprosy, a disease which, under normal circumstances, would have left Naaman ostracized and jobless, but this was not the case for Naaman.  Likely due to nothing more than his own tenacity in sticking up for himself, Naaman was able to keep his rank, his power, and his prestige, despite his unsightly affliction.

Still, Naaman knew that his life would be a whole lot easier if he was cured of his leprosy, and so, when his wife’s slave girl told him of a prophet in Israel who might be able to help him, he swallowed his pride and went.  His stiff-neck was bowed up at the prescription of Elisha, and yet, he was convinced by his servants to try and bathe seven times in the Jordan if it meant he would be healed.  Slowly, in fits and starts, Naaman was making his way toward repentance.

Finally, when he arose from the water the last time and saw that he was healed, Naaman repented, literally he re-turned, making his way back to Elisha in order to give thanks and to declare, unequivocally that there was only one God in the world, and that God resided in Israel.

Naaman’s journey to repentance wasn’t easy.  It required trust, some prodding, a gut check, and finally, following a set of directions that seemed ridiculous, but in the end, he found God.  Sometimes, that how it works in our lives.  In order to find God through repentance, it requires action.  We have to first find ourselves in need.  We have to trust that someone or something outside of ourselves can meet that need.  We might need someone else to help us along the way.  We might even find ourselves in an unknown place following a ridiculous set of instructions. In the end, when we have seen the work of God in the unlikeliest of places, true repentance then is to reorient our lives toward God and give thanks.  None of this is easy, but no one said it would be.  Repentance isn’t just the work of the mind or the heart, but it often requires physical action to find God’s grace.