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A Sermon on Luke 17:11-19
October 14, 2013, 8:34 am
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

 

                As I come to this gospel text from Luke, I’m confronted with the fact that I have very rarely been the outsider. Sure, there have been awkward times, when I haven’t quite fit in, or showed up in the right clothes or makeup. I remember the first community bridal shower I went to at my church in North Dakota. I wasn’t quite sure if I was expected to go since everyone was invited and it was at the church. I had never met the bride, but her parents were active at the church. There was a community event outside that morning, so I went straight from that casual outdoor event to the church for the shower. I didn’t realize that most people went home in between, and changed into dressy clothes. I felt rather inappropriate in my jeans.

            There are other times when I know I’ve stuck out. Like when I’ve travelled abroad and realized I was the racial minority for once. And there have been times when I’ve been told point-blank that I don’t belong, like when I dared to try to sit in someone else’s pew when I visited a church where Jeff was preaching.

            But for the most part, doors open for me, mall security guards ignore me, and people haven’t taken one look at me and sent me on my way. Some of you don’t share my experience of privilege, but I’m willing to wager that many of you do.

            For those of us who come into society from a place of privilege, of belonging without even recognizing that right, this text from Luke can be a challenge. It’s a challenge because it’s another example of Jesus welcoming and uplifting the outsider, and calling us to consider what kind of prejudices and closed communities we support.

            In this text we meet a group of characters, identified by the only marker anyone in that society would care about: they are sick, they are lepers. In the Bible, when we read about lepers, that might mean any kind of skin condition, but you can be sure that it would be obvious. What makes it even more obvious is that these people are obligated to shout out their presence so that everyone can avoid them. No one wants to get near to them, or touch them. Now, the idea of germs wasn’t exactly understood at this time, but the idea of purity and pollution was really big. This was a big part of religious understanding that affected social life. Really simplified, some people, or actions, or diseases, or bodily fluids, or states of being, like being dead, were dirty, polluting. Depending on what or whom you came into contact with, you might not be able to participate in things like worship until you went through cleansing rituals. These lepers are labeled as dirty, polluting people, people to avoid.

            When they approach Jesus, we see that they do so in the way they have been trained, keeping a distance. So they have to shout at him: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus notices them. Jesus instructs them to go to the priests, and as they do so, they find that they have been cleansed of their leprosy. They are made clean. Jesus has restored their lives.

            But only one of them seems to really notice. To notice who it is who has healed him, and notice what that must mean about this man Jesus. This one turns back from the other nine healed lepers and approaches Jesus, praising God and thanking him, casting himself before Jesus in humility and worship.

            Then we learn another detail that digs into our self-assured status: this one is a Samaritan. Jesus is travelling the region between Samaria and Galilee. Now, being a Samaritan is another strike against you if you’re looking for community among the Jews, people like Jesus and his disciples. Samaritans are considered outsiders, who don’t worship God correctly.

            So here we have a Samaritan leper, who not only is cleansed of his illness by Jesus, but is an example of faithful insight, because he was the only one to recognize Jesus as more than a healer- as someone identifiable with God, someone to whom one could praise God. Jesus commends his faith, declaring, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” This Greek word for well also carries the meaning of salvation. This outsider’s faith in Jesus has saved him.

            All ten received healing and new life from Jesus. But the text makes me think that only this Samaritan received the transformative gift of faith that recognizes Jesus as God’s presence on earth. This is an awesome story of God’s work among those outside the bounds of welcome society, of properly religious people. It can also be a word of judgment for those of us who live every day comfortably welcome everywhere we go, or who have been lifelong faithful members of a church, and know the right way to worship and live a Christian life.  

            Maybe the other nine went so quickly to the priest because, not only did Jesus command it, but they had been taught that’s simply where you experience cleansing and how you get back into relationship with God and the community. They knew the way religion was supposed to be, and weren’t ready to see Jesus as anything more than a great healer and teacher from God. Their ways of thinking about God were so set, they were so eager to be rejoined with their community and their worship life, that they were blind to God enfleshed right in front of them.

            There’s a real challenge in this text for those among us who think we’re good Christians, who have inherited a sense of what church life is like. We may find it more difficult to follow Jesus as he pushes us towards reaching out and welcoming those who don’t share our life experiences. God is at work and being revealed to those outside our churches. Those of us inside can find that threatening.

The church today is at a real tipping point. Attendance and participation in church life has gone down across the board. Many people look back fondly at the church of the 1960s, when pews were full and Sunday Schools teeming. This was a time when it was expected that you be a part of a church and everyone knew what that meant. This is not the world we live in today. We live in a world that is closer to that of the disciples and the early church: when we have to recognize God working not only in our buildings, but in our wider communities. We are at a time when we have to point to and celebrate signs of Jesus, explaining to others who this Jesus is and what he is doing, so that they can join us in praising God.

When I think about this Luke text, I wonder if it might be easier to know and trust Jesus from a place of less privilege than I experience. Maybe there’s something about being outside the tradition, not being so formed by the rules, that makes it easier for the foreigner to stop and recognize the one who restored his life. It’s scary to consider that those of us who have been lifelong members of a church, formed by what we’ve learned in Sunday School, might have a more difficult time recognizing the new things God is doing. But that realization is also a beautiful place for many of us to begin. Our God is so awesome, that God is at work in ways we never realized before. Our God is not confined to our expectations, but is breaking out expectations apart so that more and more people can be welcomed into the healing community Jesus is creating.

There can be some growing pains, and some stumbling, when community is formed among people who aren’t used to being together as equals. I know it’s difficult to worship with those who don’t behave as we do, or join at a dinner table where the scripts are different than those we know. But there is a great gift to be had when we live into the diverse community Jesus is forming, not waiting until the resurrection to experience the wideness of this community, but seeking it out right now.

Your challenge this week is to notice where you are uncomfortable. When are you among people you’re not used to interacting with? When do you shake your head at the inappropriate actions of another? When are you confronted with someone whose life story is so different from your own that you have a hard time relating or even believing it?

Notice that time, and consider how God is at work there. Can you see Jesus bringing life to that outsider? Can you hear Jesus calling you to welcome that person in? Or perhaps calling you to break apart the barriers that have separated you?

God welcomes each one of you through Jesus. Jesus gifts you with his saving life. This salvation comes from Jesus alone, and not through your own work. But my hope is that you can join me in praying: “Jesus, make me open to your gift of transformative faith, a relationship that will change me, and help me to recognize you in the many places, even unexpected places, where you can be found.” Amen. 

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World is Going to Hell in a Handbasket: Nothing New- A sermon on Habakkuk and Luke 17
October 6, 2013, 5:45 pm
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Ever hear comments like these:

I don’t watch the news anymore, it’s too depressing.

The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer and the middle class is shrinking.

The world is getting more and more dangerous. Things aren’t safe anymore. I worry about my children.

Leaders are corrupt, everyone is just in it for themselves.

I feel like the world is crumbling around me.

 

These are things I’ve heard people say today- maybe you’ve said one or two yourself.

They are also things that Habakkuk, or the people around him, might have said. Habakkuk lived back in 600 BC, in Judah. Judah was a small country, stuck between the powerful empires of Babylon and Egypt. Their situation was precarious at best. Even within their own land, leaders were corrupt, the rich cheated the poor, violence was rampant, and nothing seemed likely to change.

Habakkuk was a prophet. He spoke to God and shared God’s message with all the people. The book of Habakkuk records some of this conversation. It begins with Habakkuk’s rant against God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (1:2a)

The courage and faith of the prophet- that he can tell it like it is! These words of Habakkuk were written so very long ago, and yet I hear them coming alive for us today. Have you not seen injustice, and thought, “God, why are you not doing anything!”

Maybe you’ve put the question this way: If God is all powerful, if God cares about God’s people- why are violence and evil winning? I think there are a lot of people, in and out of the church, who have this question. It might be a big reason many people leave the church, or don’t come to a life of faith when they first hear a witness speak of God. After all, what good is it to believe in and worship a God who says he doesn’t want war or injustice or poverty or death… and yet still seems to let it all happen- or maybe worse, is powerless against all these evils.

 

Habakkuk doesn’t disengage God because of the situation he sees the world in. Rather, he calls God to account. He lays it all out and then waits for God to give some reasoning and answer. At first, God replies in an evasive way, speaking of using other nations to punish the wicked among God’s people. We skip this part in our reading this morning. Habakkuk won’t accept this as God’s answer. Instead, Habakkuk declares that he will wait for a better response. This declaration reminds me of the new stage we’ve entered as parents of a two-year old. Our sweet little girl has become frighteningly adept at pouting her lips, crossing her arms, and sitting down on her butt whenever she’s determined to get her way. Habakkuk has a bit more dignity, but his resolve is just as strong. His message to God is “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep what to see what (you) will say to me, and what (you) will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1).

Finally, God gives an answer Habakkuk accepts… but I’m not sure that it will satisfy all of us. God declares: “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (2:3a).  

Habakkuk clearly does not want to wait for God to act. His earlier speech shows that he wants to see results now. In God’s answer, God reflects a recognition of Habakkuk’s impatience. God’s promise that there is still a better future is followed by a rather cryptic explanation of when this future will come: “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3b).  

At the end Habakkuk seems able to accept that God is faithful to God’s promises, that God will bring a better future someday, even if all signs in the present point to the contrary. Habakkuk’s response is a long poetic prayer that images God as a powerful warrior, protecting and saving his people, destroying the enemies, and even having control over all the natural forces. Habakkuk keeps this vision of God even when his world hasn’t changed, when evil still seems to win, when God’s power seems questionable. The book of the prophet ends with quiet words of hope welling up from a place of pain:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (3:17-18)

 

You may be finding yourself in a strange season: when the fig tree does not blossom, and all that is expected to give life is strangled on the vine. When you wonder how God can let something wrong continue. Are you able to hear God’s vision for the future, even in that difficult place? It takes great faith to stand in the midst of despairing circumstances and declare: “yet I will rejoice in the Lord.”

We hear from the Gospel of Luke that “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5). This may be related to Jesus’ previous teaching regarding forgiving an offender even when he continues to sin in the same way, or it may lead up to the teaching that disciples are simply expected to do the work before them, or it may not be connected to either.

It may be the plea that we need to cry. Without God working faith in us, how can we trust God when there are so few signs that God is at work? How can we join Habakkuk in looking at the brokenness and injustice all around us, and declare, “I will exult in the God of my salvation?”

Jesus is the vision we are meant to hold onto, cling to, when all else seems to fall apart, and the floor opens under us. Jesus is the one who gives us the faith to trust in God’s power to make good win, and a vision of how God is doing this. Jesus was not blind to the injustice around him. He confronted it. He saw the suffering around him. He entered it. Jesus was killed, and God showed ultimate power in raising Jesus to life.

The vision of Jesus resurrected is that which out to be made “plain on tablets” (Hb 2:2) so that not only a runner far off or zooming by might read it, but so that all people, whether in the midst of despair or joy, would know that God is at work- that God has a plan- and that God will follow through. God will restore all things. God will resurrect this creation. Jesus is the first sign of that great action to bring life. God will bring your salvation.

 

May Jesus Christ meet you in this word and supper that we share, giving you the faith you need to live in the struggle of this life and yet rejoice in the God of your salvation. Amen.