Lavish mercy

File:All-Saints.jpg

Last Sunday

Luke 17:11-19

13Ten lepers approached him…saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Attendance was small on Sunday. When I began the announcements, there were only a few people scattered among the pews in the back half of the sanctuary. It’s always something of a shock when the crowd is especially small. Pastors can’t help but take it at least a little bit personally; attendance is one of the few numbers you can track easily and it is hard not to perceive it as at least some measures of success – which is challenging when you live in a culture that worships success. Ironically, the gospel reading on Sunday concerned the ten lepers who were healed but only one came back to give God praise. Jesus wasn’t exactly satisfied that only one came back, but I suppose there is some comfort in that though the numbers in our congregation were small yesterday, we did better than one out of ten.

You can find the message from Sunday at Jacob Limping and on this blog site among the “recent sermons.” It speaks to the heart of this powerful and important text. But, like most passages of scripture, there are other things to see in the narrative, not least of which is this: Jesus dispensed the healing of God freely and widely, without asking anything of those in need of God’s gifts.

We tend to be so concerned whether those who ask for help deserve it. I remember the story of the ants and the grasshopper from my childhood. The grasshopper played all summer while the ants worked diligently. Consequently, the ants had food for the winter and the grasshopper did not. Because he had not planned for the future, the grasshopper deserved what he got.

I understand the need to encourage responsibility. But I also recognize what a deadly spiritual disease it is to imagine that we deserve what we receive from God.

On a human level, there are consequences to our actions – though much too often those consequences fall on innocent bystanders. None of those who perished in the devastating railroad tanker fire in Quebec were responsible for the brakes that had not been properly set. The children of Aleppo are not responsible for the warfare that surrounds them. But responsibility does matter for so many ordinary things: driving responsibly, fidelity in marriage, spending quantity and quality time with our children, nourishing a spiritual life.

But we should not fail to recognize that the mercy of God is given freely and lavishly to the nine as well as the one. It is the character of God to cast the seed with abandon though some falls on the path or among the rocks. It is the character of God to make the sun shine on the just and the unjust (on those who show fidelity to God and to others and those who fail to show such fidelity.) When the disciples ask Jesus of the man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents,” the answer is neither.

God does not give what we deserve; God gives because it is God’s nature to give. It is part of what the scripture means when it says “God is love” and that “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.” God’s fidelity to the world is not conditional. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “The Good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the healing of the ten lepers we should not miss the lavish mercy of God. And we who call Jesus our brother and lord should live with eyes and heart open to recognize and live that mercy.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAll-Saints.jpg By Sampo Torgo at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

One came back

File:Cleansing10.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 9, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

Healing comes to the fore this Sunday, but much more than healing. Namaan, the Syrian general, enemy of Israel, yet sufferer, is told by a slave girl, captured from Israel, that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him. The story is filled with humor and irony and the radical ways of God who is not impressed with the trappings of wealth and power but simple obedience. A God of grace beyond Israel’s borders, though Namaan himself is still bound by the idea that Israel’s God is like all the others: powerful only on his own specific bits of land.

And the psalmist sings of the mighty works of God – though he, too, doesn’t yet seem to fully understand that God’s mighty works are not just for his people, but for all.

The author of 2 Timothy knows that “the word of God is not chained”, yet his focus is on “the elect” not on the vast sweep of humanity – indeed of the created world, itself.

And so we come to Jesus. Ten sufferers stand far off, crying out from a distance because they are unclean and unworthy to come near to anyone but their fellow sufferers. They cry for mercy and Jesus sends them to the priests who are the ones appointed by God to judge whether anyone is “clean” and may go home. They scamper off, but one returns. One is captured by the grace he has received. One is driven to his knees in gratefulness and praise. And he is a Samaritan, a foreigner, one to whom God is thought to have no obligation or concern.

But Jesus knows this God of the creation and the exodus and the water turned to wine is the God of all: the sinners and the saints, the outcast and the inner circle, the broken and the whole, the lost and the found.

The nine scamper off to resume their lives – and who can blame them? But the one who turned back, the one with his face to the ground, the one with tears in his eyes and a heart bursting, knows that something much more than a village healer has come.

The Prayer for October 9, 2016

God our healer and redeemer,
stretch forth your hand,
touch us with your spirit
that, cleansed and made whole,
we may live lives of gratefulness and praise;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 9, 2016

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-19a (appointed, 5:1-3, 7-15)
“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram… suffered from leprosy.”
– The commander of Israel’s hostile neighbor is told by a captured Israelite maid that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him.

Psalmody: Psalm 111
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” – An acrostic hymn singing the praise of God from Aleph to Tau (A to Z).

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” – Written by Paul (or, as some scholars think, in Paul’s name) from prison to his protégé Timothy, the author speaks to the next generation of leadership urging faithfulness to the teaching they have received.

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
“Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’” –As Jesus approaches a village he is met by ten people suffering from a dreaded skin affliction that excludes them from their families and community. They are sent on their way healed, but only the Samaritan in the group returns to acknowledge Jesus and give thanks to God.

Learning the language of heaven

Sunday Evening

Luke 17

Æbleskiver, Small Danish dessert dumplings coo...

Æbleskiver, Small Danish dessert dumplings cooked in a special pan, mostly served during the Christmas season. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.

I think this is the first time I have ever had bratwurst for coffee hour – left overs from the Oktoberfest on Saturday evening.  It’s interesting to me how those hors d’oeuvre size pieces brought to mind the warmth and pleasure of the party the night before.  A taste of the banquet that was.

Worship is a taste of the banquet that will be.  Yes, it is a taste of that last evening when Jesus broke bread and gave it to his followers saying “Do this to remember me.”  And, yes, it is a banquet of its own where God feeds God’s gathered community.  But this shared bread is not supposed to fill us with nostalgia for last night; it is to shape us by the promise of tomorrow.

I say that I would like to learn Danish – though I know I can never quite get those noises made deeply in the throat.  But it was the language of my grandparents’ home.  It was the language of great family parties, of akvavit and pickled herring, of roast pork and red cabbage and pickled red beets, of frikadeller and hakkebøf and those wonderful caramelized new potatoes, of laughter and song and toasting – and fabulous deserts.  In a way, that was my first taste of the banquet of heaven, my first taste of the world made perfect.

But I don’t learn Danish.  I haven’t sought out a class.  I haven’t tried a language course on CDs.  For me, Danish is the language of nostalgia.  If, on the other hand, I knew that I was going to go live in Denmark at some time in the future – then learning the language would be imperative.

The bread and wine of Holy Communion is a taste of the feast to come.  Worship is our language class for the future.  Here, we are learning the language of mercy and shared bread.  Here, we are learning the language of forgiveness and redemption.  Here, we are learning what it is to live free from guilt and fear.  Here, we are learning to trust the faithfulness of God – and learning to be faithful in return.

The gifts of heaven; the obligations of earth

Saturday

Luke 17

English: Cleansing of the ten lepers

English: Cleansing of the ten lepers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

The Greek word is lepra, but all available evidence indicates that leprosy in the modern form known as Hansen’s disease doesn’t arrive in the Middle East until after the time of Jesus.  Neither do the symptoms of Hansen’s disease match those described in Leviticus.  But this does not mean that the skin conditions that were the object of ancient concern weren’t devastating.  They were just devastating in a different way than distorted and decaying flesh.  Such ‘lepers’ still had to remain outside the village.  They still had to wear torn clothing and uncovered, unbundled hair as a sign of their distress.  They still had to warn passerby to keep their distance.

I remember the day President Kennedy was shot.  They sent us home from school.  I was eleven.  I knew something serious had happened; the principal came and pulled the teacher from the classroom.  When she returned she was clearly shaken, though from her announcement I couldn’t quite tell what it all meant.  Mother had been washing her hair when I arrived home.  I rang the bell and she answered with her hair is disarray, without makeup, wearing some kind of housedress or robe – something other than her normal clothes.  She was clearly distressed.  I don’t know if she was crying or that water was dripping from her hair, but her appearance scared me more than the teacher’s announcement.  Whatever it was that had happened, it was truly serious.

This is the look of those driven from the village.  They dwell in that place where the village borders on the wilderness, where order turns to chaos, where security becomes danger, where the wild things are.

It is a land most of us have visited: the chaos of a dissolving marriage; the trauma of a tragic death; the fear when a career is threatened or lost.  Or the day it breaks through into your consciousness that the lump my hands passed over as I showered was “a lump”!

To be ill, to be grieving, to be without a career, to be without a lifelong partner or a child, these are social conditions.  People become awkward around us.  They aren’t sure what to say.  The un-partnered become a third wheel.  The sorrow of the grieving grows old.  The weak or ill or frail become a burden.  You must endure the constant looks of pity.  We might as well ring a bell and walk around crying out “unclean, unclean.”

When Jesus sends the ten to show themselves to the priests – he is sending them to begin the rites that will reconnect them with their village, rites that will make them “clean,” rites that will restore not just their health but their lives.  Their bodies are not only healed, their lives are made whole.  They are saved.

In the world of the first century these lepers have a right to expect God to show faithfulness and come to their aid, but they have an obligation to respond with praise.  These nine demand God fulfill his responsibilities, but they do not fulfill theirs.  They take, but do not return.  They receive, but do not reciprocate.

As Jesus says, something is very wrong with this picture.  Then and now.

“Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

 

“Now I know”

Friday

2 Kings 5

15Then [Naaman] returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

It is a remarkable claim, since Naaman lives in a world with many gods.  Perhaps he only means that no other god can compare.  That’s what you would expect at the time. The contrast between this God who heals and frees with all the gods of the ancient world is so wide that is as though all the other gods are nothing.  Of course, Israel will come to assert that in fact the gods of the other nations are not gods at all.  They are stone and wood, gold and silver. They cannot speak.  They cannot hear.  They cannot heal or hold accountable.  There are spirit beings in the world, sure, but no gods.

The God of Israel has always been bigger than the land.  Most gods, like kings, had a jurisdiction, a realm where they ruled.  The god of rain, perhaps, but usually the god of a place: the god of Moab, the God or Edom, the god of Aram.  Even God’s with the same name are worshipped under the name of a place, the Baal of Peor, for example, or “Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron”.  But Israel is the name of a people not a place, the sons of Jacob (renamed Israel) not the coastal plains, central highlands, and rift valley of the Levant.  The God of this people, Israel, speaks in Haran, beyond the Euphrates, when he calls Abram to leave his father’s home.  God is with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in their journeys.  God is with Joseph in Egypt and Moses in Midian and leads the Israelites through the sea into freedom.  God meets them on the mountain to teach them God’s way and guides them through the wilderness.  God is not a god of a place.  His sanctuary is a tent that travels.

But Naaman thinks of the God of Israel as the god of the land of Israel.  So when he goes back to his former existence, he asks for “as much earth as a pair of mules can carry” that he might pray to the LORD on God’s home turf.

What Naaman does not yet comprehend – and what we, too often, fail to remember – is that the whole earth is God’s holy land.

A God who heals and frees

Thursday

2 Kings 5

Frontispiece for Incidents in the Life of a Sl...

Frontispiece for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.

This is just a fragment of the story, a setup for what is to come.  By her, Naaman comes to learn that there is a possibility for healing in Israel.  Still, she represents an important theme in the story: it is the poor who understand the power and grace of God.  A slave girl trusts in the work of God through the prophet; the King of Israel has no such trust.  Naaman is offended and rejects the prophet; servants persuade him to undertake this simple task of washing in the Jordan River.  Those with wealth and power often have trouble trusting a higher power.  Those on the underside often have no other choice.

So here is this young girl, taken captive in a raid, taken from home and community, made a slave, but she has lost neither faith in God nor compassion for her captors.  “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

But it is hard to pass by this fragment of the story without recognizing that the stealing of people into bondage is taken for granted by the narrator.  There is no sense of horror at the idea of such bondage.  No pause to condemn our degraded humanity.  It just is what it is.  It is what it always has been. It is what it continues to be.  Human trafficking.  Child soldiers.  Economic enslavements.  Child brides sold into marriage.  Domestic violence.  We were not created to enslave or be enslaved.  It was not the way of God in creating and blessing the world.  It is not the way of God shown in liberating the children of Israel from Egypt (and liberating Egypt from slaveholding).  It is not the way of God in the legal codes at Sinai.  It is not the way of God voiced by the prophets.  It is not the way of God revealed in Jesus.  Disciples are called not conscripted.  Faith liberates not imprisons.

But we imprison.  And we often bless our prisoning with the name of God.

Though the narrative presumes a world of slavery, it is a story about being set free.  And Naaman is not only freed from his disease; a deeper, spiritual liberation occurs, a reorientation of his life.  He kneels now to a new god, a god who heals and frees.

Beggars before the divine mercy

Wednesday

2 Kings 5

English: Royal procession of Raja Sunman Singh...

English: Royal procession of Raja Sunman Singh of Indergarh, National Museum, New Delhi. Indergarh Thikana, Kotah, Rajasthan, circa A.D. 1800, paper, 45 x 32.5 cm. Français : Procession royale de Sunman Singh de Indergarh, National Museum, New Delhi. Indergarh Thikana, Kotah, Rajasthan, vers 1800, papier, 45 x 32.5 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?

Naaman is incensed at his treatment at the hands of Elisha.  Here is this high royal official from Israel’s neighbor to the north, traveling with his retinue, laden with gifts: ten talents of silver (660 pounds!), six thousand shekels of gold (126 pounds!), and ten handmade suits from London’s Savile Row – or whatever is now the height of fashion and luxury.

He parades first up to the King of Israel and asks to be healed, for a captured slave girl has told her mistress, Naaman’s wife, that there is a man of God in Israel who can heal him.  The King of Israel despairs, assuming this is a pretext for the incessant conflict with their hostile and more powerful neighbor to break out into open war.  But Elisha sends a note “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”  The message, of course, infers that Naaman might learn what Israel’s king has not.

So the semi-royal procession moves to Elisha in the ancient equivalent of a presidential motorcade, and Elisha doesn’t even bother to come to the door.  There is no great public ritual.  No honoring of his esteemed guest.  No show of power, only a servant sent out with the message to go wash in the Jordan seven times.

Elisha has sent him away as if he were a beggar.

And are we not all beggars when it comes to the divine mercy?

Naaman storms away in a rage until his servants persuade him to do as the prophet said.  Had he been commanded to do a Herculean task, he would certainly have done so.  But to humble yourself is a far greater challenge.

Naaman is healed.  And when he returns with his great riches to make payment for the services of the prophet, he is sent away again.  It is a gift.  We are all as beggars before the divine mercy.

The Lord and Giver of Life

Watching for the morning of October 13

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

English: Lepers in Jerusalem 1913 outside Mary...

English: Lepers in Jerusalem 1913 outside Mary’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Band-Aids exercise a magical power for small children.  There is a kind of terror that seems to overtake them at the sight of blood – as though the life force were leaking from their body.  The same seems to have been true of skin diseases in ancient Israel; several chapters in Leviticus discuss such diseases, their diagnosis, and their consequences in great detail.  We still share something of these ideas, or we wouldn’t spend however many billions of dollars on skin care lotions and creams.  We routinely say people look well or ill based on their skin condition.  And a certain pallor always strikes us with a deathly fear.

The laws in Leviticus governed blotches and discoloration on walls and fabrics, too, even as we react to the site of mold.  This is not about contagion and disease prevention; it is about that sense of the unclean.  In Israel, such a disease excluded you from family and community.  You become an untouchable.  It hints that you are under a curse, that God is holding your sins against you.

Ten such people cry out to Jesus for mercy in Sunday’s gospel.  What happens is not a medical miracle; what happens is a restoration of life.  Their bodies are made whole; their spirits are made whole; their lives are made whole.  They are restored to their life in their community.

But only the one Samaritan seems to understand that they have not met a mendicant healer; they have been met by the one authorized to dispense the gifts of the Lord and Giver of Life.

The Prayer for October 13, 2013

God our healer and redeemer,
stretch forth your hand,
touch us with your spirit,
that cleansed and made whole
we may live lives of gratefulness and praise.  

The Texts for October 13, 2013

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram… suffered from leprosy.”
– The commander of Israel’s hostile neighbor is told by a captured Israelite maid that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him.

Psalmody: Psalm 111
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” – An acrostic hymn singing the praise of God from Aleph to Tau (A to Z).

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” – Written by Paul (or, as some scholars think, in Paul’s name) from prison to his protégé Timothy, the author speaks to the next generation of leadership urging faithfulness to the teaching they have received.

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
“Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’” –As Jesus approaches a village he is met by ten people suffering from a dreaded skin affliction that excludes them from their families and community.  They are sent on their way healed, but only the Samaritan in the group returns to acknowledge Jesus and give thanks to God.