Saturday, December 14, 2013

Are You The One?

Thanks go out to the work of Arland J. Hultgren for his thoughts on the Gospel reading.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This is the Word of the Lord.

A lot has happened to John the Baptist since we met him in last week's Gospel reading. He's gone from a wild-eyed prophet in camel's hair, standing knee-deep in the Jordan and preaching repentance to an imprisoned man facing death and wrestling with very real doubts: after all of this, has he hitched his horse to the wrong wagon after all? Is Jesus really the Messiah he had been proclaiming?

John's troubles began when Herod Antipas, who was Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, divorced his wife, then somehow arranged or forced his brother Philip to divorce his wife, Herodias, and married her. Confusing, I agree, and not only against the Jewish Law but (since Herodias was also his cousin) creepy.

It was hard to find a person in all of Judea, much less the region of Galilee, who didn't find the whole affair abhorrent, but because the Herods were a bloodthirsty lot who could pretty much do as they pleased as long as they kept Caesar happy, not very many people had the guts to speak out against it.

John the Baptist was, as you might imagine, one of the few exceptions.

Now, I imagine that it is one thing to have the odd priest or Pharisee criticize the tetrarch, but people were listening to John the Baptist, and the more John talked the angrier people got at Herod Antipas. So to shut John up, Herod had him arrested and imprisoned.

So this gives us a little background, yes, but I don't think it fully explains what has happened to John, because he had to have known this was coming. John couldn't have expected, in that day and age, to preach against the hypocrisy of the Temple elite and the most feared and respected theologians (meaning the Pharisees and the Sadducees), and condemn the private affairs of a despotic ruler, without consequence.

These are the choices and actions of someone who knows what is right and true and who knows that standing for righteousness is worth the danger. These are the actions of one who is confident in his calling, committed to laying the groundwork for the coming Kingdom of God.

So why the doubts? Why ask Jesus, who John himself had baptized, who John himself had proclaimed the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” if he was, in fact, the Messiah?

It wouldn't be a stretch to blame his doubt on the fact that he was imprisoned. All that time alone, left to his own thoughts, time to reflect and question and worry and second-guess... but I would suggest that the issue goes deeper than that.

Firstly, being imprisoned by Herod wouldn't have been like spending the night in a drunk tank, or in any fashion like being incarcerated in our modern penal system. Upon his arrest, John would have been taken to Herod's palace, and through a passage beneath the building to a dark, wet, cold, vermin infested cell. We can expect that he was beaten, malnourished, and miserable. The only things that may have kept him from starving to death or dying of exposure would have been visits from his disciples and the interest of Herod Antipas, who we read elsewhere enjoyed late-night talks with the imprisoned prophet.

Add to that John's own expectations of Messiah. Remember how he had preached to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “ who is more powerful than I is coming after me... he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Fire and winnowing and clearing... for John, the Messiah would come bringing righteousness, exacting judgment, finally and decisively. And it wasn't much of a journey from that belief to the realization that John needed some justice exacted on his behalf, and soon. If Messiah was going to wipe out evil, why wasn't it happening? Why was John shivering in this rat-and-sewage-infested hole day after day after horrible day?

Jesus doesn't fit John's expectations of Messiah, nor does he fit in to Jewish Messianism in general. I can't help feeling that, as understandable – and, I daresay, as important – as this question may be, it must have been a painful one for John to have asked.

We know that John and Jesus were cousins – Mary was Martha's niece, and the two women were obviously very close and definitely knew who Jesus was. Literally from “day one.” It is conjecture, but not inconceivable, to see John and Jesus growing up together, or at the very least seeing one another regularly at Jewish festivals or family gatherings. If John leapt in Martha's womb when Mary came near, how would he have felt each time he was with his cousin Jesus? Think of it – he grew up knowing who Jesus was, certain of it, and knowing what his own purpose in life was to be!

And now... what if he was wrong? What if the universe had played an awful trick on him? What if all of this was for nothing?

Scholars point out that Jesus' answer was kinda vague, indirect, that it wasn't really a yes or no response: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” And yes, it's true that Jesus made it a habit, at least in what are called the “synoptic Gospels” (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), to never, ever proclaim himself, but to proclaim the Kingdom.

Yet, for all of this, I would argue that Jesus' response was direct, and was a resounding yes! Messiah had come! The Kingdom of God was indeed at hand! Justice and righteousness were being shed abroad... just not in the way John – or many other people, for that matter – were expecting.

After all, what is righteousness? Is it merely a state of being? Or is it a verb, something that is done?

What is justice? Is justice simply to punish wrongdoers? Or is it something more holistic?

Punishing evil may be satisfying... but it does nothing to relieve the suffering of the hungry. And all the efforts we may make to be righteous do nothing for the downtrodden.

With his simple response, Jesus is directing John's attention to the oracles of the prophet Isaiah, the promises of Messiah who comes with healing, with mercy, with healing, with hope.

Hear the Word of God from the Book of Isaiah:

First, Isaiah 29:18-19

On that day the deaf shall hear the words of scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.”

Isaiah 35:5-6

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert...”

And finally, Isaiah 61:1

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners...”

So even though John and much of Jewish literature and many portions of the Old Testament expected Messiah to be a powerful ruler, one who would usher in – by force – a new era of peace. John was looking for the God with the finger on the “smite” button, for regime change, for an earthly – if holy – Kingdom in the here and now.

God has a longer view than that. What's more, God is for us.

What that means is that God's love, God's mercy... these come first.

Jesus came to usher in the blessings of the messianic age – the healing, the restoration of life, the cleansing of the impure, the mercy, the love, the good news spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, among others.

Jesus loved, healed, cleansed, and forgave lavishly, extravagantly, ebulliently – and not just the Jewish people, but Romans and slaves and pagans and Samaritans. He spent time not simply with the religious elite – Pharisees and Sadducees – but with tax collectors and sinners. In proclaiming the now-and-coming Kingdom of God, he drew the circle of mercy and love and forgiveness wide, and sealed that forgiveness in his blood.

In Jesus Christ, God is for us.

This is our legacy, Resurrection People. We live in the promise of hope and healing and new life in the risen Christ, whose advent we both celebrate and look forward to. We live in the calling to be hope and healing, to be the vehicles which bring the good news of new life in Christ to all people: the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized... even our neighbors and our family and our friends. People across the planet and people across the street need to know that God loves them.

Yes, there is indeed plenty in Scripture which tells of a time when evil will be purged, when this present sinful earth will cease and a new heaven and a new earth will be established in righteousness. But until that final Advent, we Resurrection People continue the work of our risen Lord – to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, and always to draw the circle wide, and to be just as extravagant, lavish, and ebullient with the love and mercy and forgiveness of God... as God has been with us.

God is for us.

Alleluia, Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Prepare the Way of the Lord...

I am indebted to the writing of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton and the Rev Dr. John Fairless for their insights into the Gospel reading.

MATTHEW 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I have resigned myself to the knowledge that there are some things I just will never understand. Calculus, how to play songs on the guitar that are in, say, C sharp or B flat... and why, smack-dab in the middle of Advent, in amongst all the pretty lights and the carols and the nativity scenes and the cooking and the shopping and all of the buildup to the day we, in our own way, celebrate the birth of Christ, we get slapped in the face with John the Baptist.

It seems that John just showed up one day, out in the middle of nowhere, yelling at the top of his lungs at no one in particular: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”

Maybe a group of shepherds, watering their flock in the meager, muddy water of the Jordan, heard him first and went to investigate. It's not much of a stretch to think that they would be a little freaked out by what they saw: a man wearing a garment of camel's hair, tied at the waist with a leather strap. I imagine his hair and beard were unkempt, and that he had a wild-eyed stare, but that is my imagination talking.

But maybe, after gawking and maybe stifling some giggles, these shepherds would listen to what he was shouting, and remember some of the readings they'd heard over the years in synagogue – The ending of the book of Malachi, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes...”

This was a nation and a people, after all, who were hungry for a Messiah. What's more, this was a nation and a people whose cultural identity was wrapped up in the writings of prophets... yet there hadn't been a prophet in Judea in hundreds of years. A man wearing animal skins, standing knee-deep in the Jordan and shouting at the clouds certainly could be a prophet...

In any case, word got around, and people began showing up, and kept showing up, bringing friends and family, spreading the word. Because John was doing something new, something unheard of: baptism.

No, baptism itself wasn't a new thing. One of the requirements for those wanting to join the Jewish faith – male and female – was baptism. There was also, in that day, a group called the Essenes, who, rejecting Temple worship in favor of a more personalized and rigorous faith journey, separated themselves from the rest of the Jewish culture, and practiced daily ritual baptisms.

But what John was preaching wasn't to proselytize Gentiles, nor was it introducing a regimen of daily cleansings. John was preaching repentance.

That's an interesting word in a lot of ways. First off, in the original Greek, the word for “repentance,” metanoia, isn't all that remarkable a word. It didn't have particularly religious connotations. It was simply the word they used for turning around.

The Reverent Dr. Delmer Chilton – I love his name – tells the story of a pastor friend of his who met God on the interstate. He was driving north on I-85 when a truck crested the hill ahead of them, going South. Emblazoned above the cab, across the front of the trailer, were the letters G-O-D.

As the truck drew closer, he could read the side of the trailer, “Guaranteed Overnight Delivery,” so he understood what G-O-D stood for in that case – but a question came to his mind... “If God is going South, what am I doing going North?”
In the New Testament, metanoia, repentance, means more than merely changing one's mind. There is more to repentance than feeling bad and telling God we're sorry. Confession is vital, yes, but it isn't the full picture. If we say we are sorry, but we do nothing to change, all we've done is indulge in a feeling. When we are called upon to repent, we are called upon to effect a complete change – a reorientation of the personality!

And that is what John is talking about when he comes down so hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees – both, in their ways, a religious elite, both groups quite comfortable that they were God's special snowflakes. A dip in the Jordan would make them part of the crowd, gain them some acceptance in the community, show everyone around how utterly serious they were about pleasing God, and whenever this Messiah person showed up, they would be assured a place in the re-established Kingdom of David.

But it wasn't about the water. There is nothing magical or specifically holy about the water of the Jordan. Dunk or sprinkle or pour, adult or child or infant, use the water of the Jordan or the water of the Black Warrior or the water of Lake Purdy or crack open a bottle of the off-brand purified water you buy at Wal-Mart, the point of it all is changing the things which separate us from God – the things that keep us heading North when God is headed South.

When John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees – and to us – to “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” the idea is not to do stuff that makes us qualified to repent. We don't run around doing good stuff hoping that God will accept our apology. Rather, to bear fruit worthy of repentance is quite simply to live like we have repented – to show by our actions that we are a changed people.

In this season of Advent, when we remember both the birth of our Savior and anticipate his return, we are called upon to look at our lives and decide if we are going in the right direction, following the correct path, adhering to the way of Jesus Christ. And if not, if we are going north when God is going South, now is the time to move in a new and better direction, to jump off the next exit, turn around, and go God's direction.

God is traveling on the side of peace and justice and the poor. God travels the paths of mercy, grace, love and hope. God moves toward lifting the downtrodden, freeing the oppressed, and including the marginalized.

It is not for us to debate whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side. It is for us to get on that side.

The Good News of the Gospel is that no matter how far we may have gone in the wrong direction, there is always hope with God; and turning to go in a new way is always the dawn of a new day in the life of the spirit.

Alleluia, amen.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Speaking The Truth To Power...

My sources include Deutsche Welle,, and The Daily Beast. You can find your Representative here, and your Congresspeople here.

Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.

"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Luke is recounting, in this part of his Gospel, the final week before Jesus will be executed by the Roman authorities. At this point in history, Herod’s Temple is still under construction, and will be for a number of years to come. As we pick up the narrative, Jerusalem is packed to bursting with families that have come to take part in the feast of the Passover. And however much people dislike, distrust, even hate whichever Herod happens to be in power at a given time, there is no denying the beauty of this structure. From about any point in the city, one can look up and see the Temple, its white marble highlighted with gold decorations, smoke from constant sacrifice wafting through the air and to the heavens.
By the time Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, the Temple has been under construction for some forty-six years. Barely anyone alive would remember the Temple as it was when King Herod I undertook its renovation in 19BC. Most folks would have heard about it: small, rather run-down despite constant repair and expansion, maybe – just maybe – when compared to the beauty of the temples the Greeks and Romans built for their gods, a little embarrassing. No matter; that building was actually torn down as part of Herod's building project. But since the daily religious activities had continued without interruption, Herod’s Temple was still considered the second Temple, first constructed by the returning exiles in 515 BC.

The magnificence of this work in progress filled the hearts of every Jewish man, woman, and child with pride. Here, at last, a building which personified the Jewish people and the Jewish God, every stone and every embellishment dedicated to the One True God, who had led them from captivity in Egypt, and had brought them back from Babylon. And right there, in that tallest structure on the innermost courts, was the Holy of Holies – and while no one would admit believing that God actually resided in the Most Holy Place, still deep down, when you looked at the glory of the structure, witnessed the solemn dedication of the army of priests, and felt in your soul the beauty of the singing of the Psalms, it was hard not to think that this was the place where God lived.

But can God be contained in a building? Of course not, it’s silly to even pretend that it’s worth discussing in a sermon. So let’s change the question: can a people’s identity, can a faith tradition’s identity, be so closely identified with an architectural creation that it is, in effect, inseparable?

The Jewish people may have thought so. Thankfully, of course, they were wrong. I say “thankfully,” because only three years after the Temple was finally completed, in AD70, it was utterly destroyed. Not one stone was left on the other. As we've talked about in past weeks, the Pharisees were able to, in effect, save the Jewish faith from obsolescence when the Temple, the focal point of their faith, ceased to exist.

Long before that time, mere days from when Jesus utters these words in our reading today, he will shout, “It is finished!” and in that tallest structure in the Temple, the heavy curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the planet will be ripped apart, torn from top to bottom like tissue paper.

Anyone who looks will be able to see that this most holy place, the chamber which once housed the Ark of the Covenant, the place where God lives... is empty.

As empty as Jesus' tomb on Resurrection Sunday.

From Easter morning on, God’s identity, God’s community, God’s activity will reside not in a building – even a beautiful building – but in people: men and women in every time and place. The Gospel isn’t a residence. It’s a journey, and since the moment the tongues of flame settled on the disciples’ heads on the Day of Pentecost, God's spirit has been loose in the world, and people have been moving.

Men and women found themselves at odds with the Roman authorities, arrested and killed for daring to refuse to worship Caesar, blamed for everything from foreign invasion to natural disaster, they knew, firsthand, what Jesus meant when he said, “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

Imprisoned, tortured, and killed, still they refused to abandon their trust in the living God, their faith in the risen Christ.

I confess that I am doubtful if anyone in the United States today has any understanding of what it’s like to undergo true persecution. Yet there are places on this planet right now, today, where men, women, and children are being imprisoned, starved, tortured and killed for the crime of believing in Christ. 

According to the German aid organization “Open Doors,” across the world some one hundred million Christians are undergoing persecution in 2013, in countries including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are coming under increasing fire from the Muslim Brotherhood, which blames them for the ouster of Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi. In September, a Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 85 Christians in All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Syrian Christians continue to suffer at the hands of Islamist rebels and, according to one report, fear extinction if Bashaar Al-Assad falls.

Two thirds of Iraqi Christians have simply vanished, having fled the country or been murdered for their faith.

Yet even in environments where Christians are persecuted and killed, the faith grows. In India, despite a growing anti-Christian bias, some seventy-one million people, across all social strata, count themselves as followers of Christ, making it the eighth largest Christian nation on the planet.

Perhaps you and I don’t know what persecution is like. Perhaps it falls on us, then, to be the voice of those in countries who cannot speak up for themselves. It’s as simple as a letter or email to an elected official, calling on them to push for human rights in all areas of the globe.

It’s as simple as writing a check to a ministry or organization that works to support imprisoned and persecuted Christians, and, for that matter, any marginalized and neglected segment of the world’s population.

It is simple, but it is vital.

Kirsten Powers, a columnist for The Daily Beast, quotes Israeli author Lela Gilbert as saying that, while her Jewish neighbors are “are shocked but not entirely surprised” by the attacks on Christians in the Middle East. “They are rather puzzled, however, by what appears to be a lack of anxiety, action, or advocacy on the part of Western Christians.” Powers notes that, while American Christians are quite able to organize around issues that concern them, religious persecution appears not to have grabbed their attention, despite worldwide media coverage of the atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

In January, Republican Representative Frank Wolf penned a letter to 300 Catholic and Protestant leaders complaining about their lack of engagement. “Can you, as a leader in the church, help? Will you use your sphere of influence to raise the profile of this issue—be it through a sermon, writing or media interview?”

There have, according to Powers, been far too few takers.
Wolf and Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo sponsored legislation last year to create a special envoy at the State Department to advocate for religious minorities in the Middle East and South-Central Asia. While it passed in the House overwhelmingly, it died in the Senate. In January, it passed the House again, but the bill sits idle in the Senate, where there is no date set for it to be taken up.
Imagine the difference an outcry from constituents might have made. Is anybody listening? When American leaders meet with the Saudi government, where is the public outcry demanding they confront the Saudis for fomenting hatred of Christians, Jews, and even Muslim minorities through their tracts and textbooks? In the debate on Syria, why has the fate of Christians and other religious minorities been almost completely ignored?
Part of what Jesus speaks about in our reading today is the art of “speaking the truth to power.” He says, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

We must speak. We must write. We must act.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the authors of the “Theological Declaration of Barmen” in our Book of Confessions, wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” And Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted as saying, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Jesus has promised to give us the words to say. It is up to us to speak.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Don't Give Up!

I am deeply indebted to the scholarship and thoughts of Kathryn Matthews Huey, D. Mark Davis, Meda Stamper, and David Kalas.

Nothing pithy or humorous to say. Just encouragement: Don't give up...

LUKE 18:1-8
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

This is the Word of the Lord.

There are some beautiful representations of prayer in classic art. No doubt when I say the words “Praying Hands,” either a painting or sculpture of hands pressed together in an attitude of prayer comes to mind – we've all seen it, haven't we? Or the familiar painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, kneeling at a rock, face turned toward heaven. Or an elderly gentleman at a table, clasping his hands, a loaf of bread in front of him.

There's nothing at all wrong with these kinds of representations, any more than there is anything wrong with these kinds of quiet, dignified prayers. Our Gospel reading today has nothing to do with these kinds of prayer, though.

We begin with a picture of a judge who isn't much of a judge. When you and I hear the word “judge,” we picture a man or a woman in a black robe, gavel in hand. As I understand it, for people in Judea the time of Jesus, the leader of the synagogue was called upon to mediate disputes among people in their village. The priests of the Temple in Jerusalem were judges as well, many meeting together in the Great Sanhedrin to hear and decide matters of religious and civil importance.

And yes, injustices abounded with these different judges – the High Priest owed his job to the Romans – in fact, Pilate kept the priestly garments under lock and key, and if the Roman Prefect didn't like what the Chief Priest was doing, he simply replaced him. Even so, scholars and historians note that the priestly class in Jerusalem lived sumptuously off the proceeds from the Temple tax, and was thus quite dedicated to keeping the status quo.

By stark contrast, the widow had, quite literally, nothing. John Pilch writes that the “word for 'widow' in Hebrew means 'silent one' or 'one unable to speak.' In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf.” Women could not own property or work to earn a living. Without a husband or a male child to support her, the widow was dependent upon the kindness of the synagogue or Temple for her basic daily needs.

Now, of course, we don't know who this woman's opponent was, or what the person had done against the widow, all we are certain of is that (a) this judge doesn't care, and (b) the widow doesn't care that this judge doesn't care. She has a need, the judge can address that need, so she is by cracky gonna get her need addressed!

\You can just see this widow waiting at the judge's door every morning, first in line. Maybe she interrupts him again at lunch, and maybe every time she is turned away she gets back in line again, so by the end of the day she has been turned away by the judge several times. Maybe she knocks on his door during supper. Maybe she makes a point to sit in the front row at they synagogue and stare at him the whole time...

After awhile, the judge gets heartburn every morning because he knows who is gonna be there when he opens his door. He hears her voice in his dreams, he is beginning to lose sleep – the Greek for where the judge says “ that she may not wear me out...” has, as its primary meanings, “to beat black and blue, to smite so as to cause bruises and livid spots.” He is feeling verbally beaten up by this widow's constant haranguing! So for the sake of his own health, he gives in and answers the widow's request.

Perhaps the first time this widow stood before the judge, she did so properly, following decorum. Once he turned her away, though, she was faced with a hard choice: give up, and let her opponent keep whatever she had taken from the widow, or keep fighting for her rights.

One of the principles I taught in sales is that, most times, people will take the easiest option given to them. That's why the best salespeople give only the illusion of choice: So would you like the red one or the green one? And when faced with opposition, either real or imagined, the easiest option for humans is to give up, find a better way, or settle for no way at all.

But if Moses had given up after that initial, disheartening encounter with Pharaoh, the Hebrews would not have been freed. If the children of Israel had given up marching around Jericho after five days, the walls would not have fallen. If the Syrophonecian woman had given up when she received no response — or a negative one — from Jesus, her daughter would not have been healed. If, following the coming of the Holy Spirit, the apostles in Jerusalem had given up at the first sign of opposition, the church there would have floundered while they cowered. If Paul had given up his missionary efforts as soon as he encountered difficulty, untold numbers of individuals and communities would not have heard the good news.

So yes, maybe surrender is easy, but giving up is the easiest, quickest way to lose. And not giving up is a basic key to victory in any sense of the word.

At the point in time Luke was writing his Gospel, people were probably starting to feel discouraged. Everyone expected Jesus to be coming any day now, but time wore on and no Jesus. They were tired of waiting for the deepest hope of their hearts, and it just wasn't happening. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny little minority in a great big, powerful empire. They were anxious and suffering.

So this parable is most decidedly not about how to nag God with our repeated requests so, eventually, we'll wear the Almighty out and God will give in and give us what we want. Rather, today's passage is about waiting and not being discouraged, not losing heart.

Society may have told the widow that she was a nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence helped her hold on to that knowledge: Barbara Brown Taylor says, “She [was] willing to say what [she] wanted – out loud, day and night, over and over – whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was.”

One of the doctrines of Calvinism, which serves as the basis for our Reformed theology in the Presbyterian Church USA, is “Perseverance of the Saints.” This doctrine has been taken to mean a lot of things, like “Once Saved, Always Saved,” or evidence that people who may fall away from the faith were never “really saved” in the first place. But I rather see the idea of “Perseverance of the Saints” as an encouragement, reassurance that, for the Christian, staying the course is worth it.

Our New Testament Lectionary reading, from Second Timothy, follows on this theme of persistence, not giving in or giving up. Paul writes to Timothy, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

Do you hear how those words stand out? Proclaim, be persistent, with the utmost patience, endure, carry out...

Don't give up. In the face of prayers that continue to go unanswered, and we don't know why, don't give up. When justice is slow, when good things happen to bad people and when good people just keep getting bad things, don't give up.

Jesus ends the parable with a question: “...when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Faith is not about our doctrines, faith is not about what we believe. Marcus Borg puts it best: “you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”

Rather, faith has to do with relationship. With giving your heart and your trust, your radical trust, to God. Soren Kierkegaard says that “faith as trust is like floating on a deep ocean. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”

Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being.

In this sense, then, persistence in prayer has very little to do with what we pray for. Sure, the content of our prayers is important, but part of what we learn as we grow in relationship with God as we pray, and pray, and pray, is how to pray. Prayer is one of the ways we remind ourselves of who we are, and prayer shapes our hearts in a way that reflects the heart of God.

It bears repeating, then: don't give up. God, who is not at all like the unjust judge, doesn't move in our time frame, no, and sometimes the answers to our prayers don't come, or they seem to come in ways that make no sense.

Don't give up. We are promised the Holy Spirit, we are promised justice, and we are promised the now-and-coming Kingdom of God. We are precious to God, and these are the best gifts that God can give to us.

Don't give up.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Tenth Leper...

This is a reworking of a sermon I first gave in October of 2010. I rethought some of the text, so it is different, but it would be disingenuous to not point out that I am basically pulling this from what my first preacher-mentor called "The Barrel."

I really wanted to say something about the "lepers" in our society. Hopefully, those who hear and read can make the connections. But it is one reason I enjoy preaching passages about leprosy - in seeing the person behind the "uncleanness," in daring to touch, in daring to heal, Jesus showed amazing and life-altering compassion for the marginalized, the hated, the forgotten, the despised. I cannot but believe that if we in Western Christian culture were to emulate that active love-as-a-verb, no one would ever be in the outer darkness of society again.

LUKE 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "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?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

This is the Word of the Lord.

On the dusty road that wound its way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples topped the hill and trudged down into a cluttered gathering of houses, shops, and animals. Even out here in the borderlands, this arid “no man’s land” between Galilee and Samaria, word traveled ahead of Jesus, and they could see people clustered around the gate of the village.

Everywhere Jesus went, a crowd was sure to be waiting, hoping to see a miracle or perhaps get a free meal. The disciples could hear them begin to call out as Jesus neared. Anyone else would have found their cries a reason for cynicism – always wanting a miracle, a sign, bread from heaven, proof that he was the Messiah. But the disciples knew that all Jesus was interested in was another opportunity to preach about the Kingdom, to do the work of his Father, and to get on to Jerusalem… and as confusing and terrifying to all of them as that prospect was, they trudged onward with Jesus.

Jesus began to speak, and the crowd fell silent. In the distance, the disciples heard a new noise. An unwelcome noise in that day and age. Bells tinkling, and weak voices calling out, “unclean! Unclean!” The crowd around the shabby gate recoiled in horror at the sight of the ten lepers, swathed in rags, raised their hands in unison and began to cry out to Jesus, “Master, have mercy on us!”

The hot wind swirled dust around the feet of Jesus and the disciples. After a few moments, even the lepers fell silent, waiting to see what Jesus would do. Finally, Jesus spoke: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” 

The lepers paused, looking at Jesus a long time before they finally turned and trudged off toward the synagogue on the other side of the village.

The disciples felt the weight of the crowd’s disappointment. They had hoped to see something astounding, and the whole incident passed with nothing at all very interesting happening. The grumbling had already begin, an undertone to the sound of Jesus beginning to teach.

The crowd didn't see what was happening just a few yards behind them. The lepers had stopped, stock-still, staring in shock and joy at one another’s faces and hands – the scars and open sores of the leprosy were gone! Their skin was a healthy brown, not a mark in sight! At a dead run, nine of them tore off toward the synagogue, already shouting for the leading rabbi.

No one is exactly sure what Biblical leprosy was. The 13th chapter of Leviticus describes several different diseases, including forms of psoriasis, and the text appears to lump some forms of mildew into the mix when discussing leprosy. What we understand today as leprosy, or Hanson’s disease, is curable with multiple drug therapies. According to the World Health Organization, the number of people affected by the disease is steadily falling.

But the problem with leprosy in that day and age wasn’t simply that the people who had it were sick. No, the real horror of leprosy was that the people who suffered from leprosy were believed to be cursed by God, to be suffering punishment for their sins. They were instructed to wear rags, to ring a bell and cry “unclean!” wherever they went as a warning to others lest they, too become unclean, the leper was required to live apart from the community, and excluded from worshiping God. Far from being pitied, lepers were feared, hated, loathed, despised.

The Jewish Law instructed the leper who had been cured to go to the priests, to be inspected, and to make an offering of thanks. Everyone knew this, and those lepers who still had hope dreamed of the day they could go and be pronounced clean, and rejoin their families and their community. Stories always circulated of this one or that one who had been pronounced clean, but like all urban legends, no one seemed to have firsthand knowledge of this happening – always a friend of a friend who lived three villages over, my brother-on-law’s cousin’s accountant’s sister, that kind of thing.

Then the lepers began hearing about a traveling rabbi who had done the impossible, touching a leper and healing him instantly! Could it be true? As time wore on, and the stories of this man grew more frequent, it certainly seemed more and more possible. If this was the same man who was said to have brought sight to the blind, cured the lame and even cast out demons, surely he could even make the unclean pure!

When the news came to the band of lepers that Jesus was coming, they decided it was high time they took a chance on this teacher – perhaps he was a prophet, perhaps he could cure them as he had others.

So they rang their bells and cried their cries, and confronted, at a respectful distance of course, this miracle making man.

When Jesus simply told them to go and show themselves to the priest, they were a bit puzzled, of course, but they turned and went, because if you learned anything from the story of Namaan, it was that when a prophet gave a leper an instruction, you did whatever you were told.

And it was in that singular act of faith that they were made whole.

I have always wondered about the other nine… like Jesus, I wonder why they, too, didn't come back and fall at his feet. I assume that they went ahead to see the priest… that was, after all, what the Law demanded. And it is easy at this point to sound cynical, to say that it wasn't the Law that cured them, it was Jesus, how could they think of following the rules at a time like this… but…

One of the things I hope I have conveyed whenever I have spoken about leprosy was just how horrible a disease this was. Whatever it actually was, and we really don’t know, the person with leprosy wasn't simply sick. The person with leprosy was damned.

Think of it – the person who contracted leprosy had done nothing wrong. Yet in the mere act of becoming infected they were forced from their community, singled out for hatred, and denied access to worship – they not only lost their home and family and job and everything they held dear, they were denied access to God as well!

I think of the picture Jesus drew of those not allowed into the Kingdom in the last days, like in Matthew’s eighth chapter; they are “cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That kind of hopelessness, that kind of loneliness, that kind of bereavement. All because they got sick.

I can imagine that, the second they realized that the leprosy had gone, thoughts of seeing their spouses and their children, their homes and their friends, after all these years, everything that was finally possible flooded their minds and all they could think of was getting home right now! I can imagine a whoop of joy as they set out at a dead run to find the priest, to be given the freedom they had missed like a drowning man misses air.

Nine run off, and one man stands, silent, looking at the clouds of dust their ratty sandals kick up.

The Scriptures tell us that he was a Samaritan, and while this is a significant point to the narrative, he was not all that different from the nine, who (we can assume from the way Jesus speaks about them) were Jewish Galileans. This man would have had a home, and a family he loved, and worked that provided for his loved ones, and a place he went to worship God, and yes it was the same God the Jewish people worshiped; just worship interpreted in a different manner.

He had thus lost the same things as everyone else had when he became sick, and he had just the same opportunities opened wide for him in this moment.

But he didn't run away. This man turned back.

No, that isn't accurate. I don’t think he turned back, looking at the crowd, hearing Jesus speak while calculating his next move. There wasn't an internal debate about waving to Jesus as he strolled across the border into Samaria.

There is some discussion that, since he was a Samaritan, going to a Jewish priest wouldn't have done much good – after all, Jews considered Samaritans unclean anyway, and a priest wouldn't pronounce him clean of that, ever. There is truth to this, of course, but I don’t think the Samaritan spent any time thinking about this.

I think, I imagine, that this man, alone among the ten, understood all that had happened.

We can speak of “sin” in a couple of different senses. We can speak of actions or inactions that are sinful – murder, adultery, and so on… and we can speak of sin as a state of being – the state of separation from God.

We Resurrection people understand that it is in that state of separation, when we were furthest from God, at our most despicable and unclean, that Jesus Christ died for us. God in Jesus Christ loved us at our most unlovable, and though we did not deserve it or know to ask for it, the blood of Christ cleansed us from our unrighteousness, destroyed the barrier of separation caused by sin, and brought us in to right relationship with God.

What happened to that one formerly sick man on that street in that nameless village that day is a tangible representation of what Jesus Christ has done for us all. And while any statement concerning the thoughts of that Samaritan is purely conjecture, I can fully believe that, in that moment, somehow, he knew it.

Those other nine, they saw what had happened for them in the immediate, in the temporal, and yes, it was glorious. But that one man, maybe his first thought was being able to once again worship on Mount Gerissim, to offer his sacrifices and songs of praise… to feel connected to his Creator once again.

So no, he did not simply turn back, he ran back, shouting praises at the top of his lungs, falling flat on his face at Jesus’ feet, lost in the joy of the gift of life and wholeness he had been given.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this: “[Nine] behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”

For this one man, no priest would do. The priests hadn't given him life. What that Samaritan did was return, at a dead run, to the source of his life – the feet of Jesus.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the true nature of worship. His answer? The tenth leper turning back.

Worship is response. We don’t worship because we hope God will save us, we worship because God, through Jesus Christ, has already saved is, is saving us, and will on the last day save us.

And worship is acting out our beliefs. While it is true that we are here in this place at this time for the purpose of worship, the things we do and say and sing here are not all there is to say and feel and experience when it comes to worship.

Worship, for the person who is daily growing in relationship with Christ, is lived in the moment, every moment of every day. It isn't a ritual, it can’t be taught. You can't really tell someone to be thankful, you can’t really instruct in a life of worship. That would just be putting on an act. Thankfulness, worship, comes from within. Worship is an act of praise, and it is an act of service – we worship when we sing or pray, yes, but do we not also worship when we give, when we serve, when we speak?

Birds don’t sing because they've learned how. Birds sing because they have a song. The tenth leper didn't worship at Jesus’ feet because he was told to, he worshiped because he was in love.

May God grant that you and I realize that we, too, have been given our life as a gift from Jesus Christ, may we, too, sing because we have a song, and may we, too, spend our days falling in love.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


My deepest appreciation to Greg Carey and D. Mark Davis for their incredible insights into the Gospel reading. The commenter I refer to in the body of my sermon can be found on Rev. Davis' page.

If you're interested (and I hope you are), Tim Kurek's book, "The Cross in the Closet," is available on

LUKE 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

I have a friend, named Tim Kurek, who is an author. He and I were speaking on Friday about his book, “The Cross In The Closet,” which (as the title may suggest) has a very controversial subject matter. The book has sold pretty well, has gotten him some appearances on MSNBC and The View, and some speaking engagements. He told me about a review he’d gotten from a very conservative group of Christians, tearing the book apart. They hated it.


In the text of the review, the writer said, and I quote, “Kurek is an eloquent storyteller who transports readers into his world with skill and competence.”

So Tim took just these two sentences out of that whole scathing review, and posted them on his author page… making it look, for all the world, as if this hyper-conservative religious organization liked his work!

Context matters.

I bring this up because bits and pieces of our Gospel reading today have been used, out of their context, in a wide variety of very troubling ways.

The whole faith-the-size-of-a-mustard-seed has been misinterpreted to say, “if you have enough faith then you should be able to do the miraculous (heal the sick, world peace, etc) and if you can’t do those things it is because you are not faithful enough!” It’s been used to promote a Prosperity name-it-and-claim it Gospel, it’s been used to tell hurting people – the twenty-five-year employee whose corporation has downsized him out, the woman whose lump was malignant, the boy whose spot on the varsity was supposed to resolve old feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and unpopularity – that their faith just wasn’t ‘big enough.’

This is to say nothing of the latter part of the reading, which has been used though the ages to keep the oppressed – be they women or African Americans or whoever – in their place.

Context matters.

So I want to expand our reading just a little bit this morning, and add the first four verses of Chapter 17 to what we have already read:

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’”

Isn’t it interesting that the antecedent to the apostles’ demand for increased faith isn’t the desire to do miraculous signs and wonders, isn’t a greedy quest to have more and better, isn’t to have more of something – faith, money, power – than the next person?

The apostles are overwhelmed with the fear of causing a little one to stumble, smothered by the idea of having to forgive, and forgive, and forgive, and forgive…

And yes, in the original language that the Gospel of Luke is written in, the apostles are pretty clearly making a demand: “Hey, whoah there, if you are gonna expect us to do something like that, all that forgiving over and over, well, we are gonna need a power-up, buddy. I don’t care if it’s an anabolic faith steroid or cosmic enlightenment or a get-out-of-Hell-free card, but pay up, fella.”

Now, in that context, all the rest of what Jesus says falls into place, doesn’t it? And in its proper context, we now learn a whole lot about faith in a very short time – real, substantive, useful-in-the-real-world information!

In his response to a commentary, Barry Rempp makes a fascinating observation about Jesus’ opening statement: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Rempp says, “…[R]ather than being a ‘conditional statement contrary to fact’ (which is how the English-speaking world traditionally understands it), it is a ‘conditional statement according to fact.’ To illustrate [and] expand: ‘IF you have faith as small as a seed of mustard - AND YOU DO - whenever you were saying to this [sycamore] tree...’ Hence the purpose is to encourage rather than chide. …The point is not that they need more faith; rather, they need to understand that faith enables God to work in a person's life in ways that defy ordinary human experience.”

This excites me! It isn’t “oh, if I only had more faith, I wouldn’t have to struggle to pay the bills, my family wouldn’t get sick, if only, if only, if only…” It tells me that there are certain things that faith is not:

Faith is not the coins we drop into the cosmic vending machine, so God will dispense whatever we want whenever we want.

Faith is not a badge earned or an award achieved or proof that one person is holier than another. We do not, we cannot, earn faith. Faith is a gift from God, it is a component of grace, just one example of God’s egregious and inexhaustible love for us, God’s unmerited favor.

Faith is not the magic behind theological parlor games, be they snake-handling or faith healing or a perfectly crafted doctrinal statement.

And in the context – because, again, context is important – of the first four verses of the chapter:

Faith is not license to do whatever we want to whomever we want for whatever reason seems “right” to us at the time. We cannot use God or our faith or our Christian name to mislead or to do harm to another human being for any reason.

Faith is not permission to condemn another human being. “Rebuking” in the way Jesus uses it has the immediate goal of repentance and forgiveness, and that forgiveness is to be inexhaustible. It isn’t the Christian saying “you are bad!” it is the Christian saying, “You’re broken. I’ve been broken, and maybe I’ve been broken just like you. Please, let me help.”

Faith does not put the Christian in a superior position over any other person in any way, shape, or form – our namesake, the focal point of our entire belief system, on the very night he was arrested and led off to be brutally tortured and killed, this King of Kings and Lord of Lords, present at and active in the creation of the universe, took off his robes and donned the clothing of the lowest of household slaves and washed his disciples’ feet – even the feet of the man who would betray him to his death!

That is the context. That is our faith.

Jesus is telling his apostles, and us, that with the faith we have, we can do anything – replant sycamores in the ocean, or as Matthew and Mark recount the saying, move mountains into the sea…

So we don’t have to earn faith, we just have to use it. And in the context of the last part of our reading, we ain’t using faith to get in God’s good graces, or maybe merit ourselves a better mansion in the sky… we use our faith because it is who we are.

I don’t want to wander too far down a rabbit trail, but I think we in Western religious culture too often confuse great faith with good marketing and well-targeted PR, skillfully crafted presentations and masterful crowd manipulation. Faith is not about how many arenas a given TV preacher can pack or how well this or that Christian author’s last book sold.

Faith is about driving a sick acquaintance to the doctor. Faith is getting on the phone with a depressed friend. Faith is feeding, faith is clothing, faith is offering shelter. Faith is making sure a thirsty child in sub-Saharan Africa has clean water to drink, and it is making sure that no child in our country ever has to go to bed hungry because there is not enough food. It is giving up our seat for another person, and it is speaking up for the rights of all people.

Christ Jesus modeled a perfect faith in that he always put the needs of others before his own needs, even going so far as to give his life. Jesus modeled a perfect faith in that his primary and all-consuming focus, his singular goal, was to glorify God his Father.

If Jesus was popular, he was popular with all the wrong people. His fame got him killed, when you think about it.

But what he did, day in and day out, was to heal and to speak hope and to break bread and to walk and to listen and to give and to love. He did the boring things, the things no one else could be bothered to do, for the people no one else could be bothered to care about.

Phillipians chapter two, verses six through eight: “Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross.”

Faith is the miraculous and the mundane. Faith is the mountain peak and the valley floor. Faith is the energy, the drive, the encouragement, the reassurance to forgive and to love and to forgive and forgive and forgive again.

Faith is what we do because of who we are.