Monday, October 15, 2007

The Word to the Chain Gang

This sermon refers to II Timothy 2:8-15 and Luke 17:11-19

I picture those ten diseased men appearing over the brow of a hill as if they were a chain gang.

Maybe I’m free-associating with St. Paul’s image in his letter to young Timothy, his protégé. Paul writes from a jail cell, where he is “chained like a criminal.” He is in chains because when he has shown people Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, some who have seen and heard this preaching of good news have received it as bad news. You could say that they were chained, bound to defending The Way Things Are. They were not free to imagine and welcome the kinds of change Paul’s Jesus might bring into their world. And so they locked Paul in chains, to silence him.

I think that’s where I get this sense that our ten lepers are in chains. A disease, leprosy, binds them tightly together. Each of these men has had to leave home and job and village because fear and custom and law dictate that’s The Way Things Are. These ten have found each other wandering across the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee, and they have formed, one by one, a human chain. To call them “family” isn’t accurate—by the end of the story, nine are rushing home to all they used to call familiar—but for the time being, this binding-together of ten lives is the best they can make of The Way Things Are.

If you want to read a powerful testament to this kind of binding in the face of sheer disaster, read Dave Eggers’s novel What Is the What. That stunning novel carries you back and forth between two story lines. One is now in the life of a young Sudanese, one of the Lost Boys, who has resettled in a big American city and valiantly makes the best of his new life in a culture that simultaneously does and does not treat him well. The other story line, which he is reliving with all the urgency of post-traumatic stress, is about then—the other-worldly desert death march of the Lost Boys when mere children saw and suffered what children should never have to even imagine. They formed virtually a human chain as they crossed the desert, living links falling off in death, new ones joining-on as fresh wanderers crossed their path. And now, years later, that chain has been transformed into a live international virtual network of Lost Boys keeping in touch with one another by cellphone and e-mail. This is a book worth reading, What Is the What.

Now back to our chain gang. They sound like a chorus. I can’t help feeling a dark humor at work here—I mean, do they have it choreographed, that they’re calling out to Jesus in unison? Wouldn’t you expect ten desperate men to sound more like the trading pit at the New York Stock Exchange than a scripted chorus? But Luke says they’re “keeping their distance,” because that’s the way things have to be. And they’re smart. They know they have to make themselves not just heard but understood, and they’ve been together long enough to know how to coordinate their efforts. This is a moment of life and death: they have to be heard. So one of them yanks the chains, leads the way, sets the pace—and soon there’s a rhythm: Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!

Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!

This is liturgy, simple basic corporate prayer. These ten are a minyan. We should see in them the Church. And given the way this story goes, that’s a scary thought.

Hear again what does happen. Jesus sees them, and, with absolutely no drama, no other engagement with them, he directs them to go and show themselves to the priests. Without argument, they go—and by the time they arrive at the temple their skin is clean and clear. They’re standing before the priests healed. Jesus has sent them there because the ancient law requires priestly certifying of a leper’s remission before that person is allowed to return to the original community. And by the time they stand in that place, their disease has been stopped dead in its tracks.

That noise you just heard is their chains, falling to the ground.

What happens next is the defining moment. One of them, seeing his skin and his health and his freedom restored, turns back, praising God with a loud voice. I wonder if he was the one who led the chorus.

If so, he does no longer. The nine are not following. They have, to use the right word, split. Each is racing back to home. Who knows how long it’s been since they’d seen wives, children, parents—since they’d held and hugged those they love, been held and hugged. Can we blame them?

But for this one fellow, the first stop is at Jesus’s feet. For him, home is where Jesus is.

And he was a Samaritan, we are told. He was from across the border.

Were not ten made clean? Jesus asks. Was none of (the other nine) found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?

Exactly. He’s found. The others are lost. No longer chained to each other, the nine can be said to still be chained, to a prison wall stouter than The Way Things Are. They’re bound to The Way Things Used To Be.

No one can blame them. They’ve broken no law. By going to the priests, they’ve kept to the letter of the law. But they’ve missed the point of it all. Jesus healed them to free them, and they took only some of the gift, accepted freedom from their burden, but not freedom for a new life centered in God.

Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. You could call that a commissioning. You could see this moment as the making of an apostle. And what tells Jesus that this fellow is ready to take on the world? His gratitude, his embracing the gift of freedom to move beyond law to love, his loud spontaneous thankfulness to God.

Do Jesus’s words suggest that the other nine have not been made well? They’re certified as clean, but are they well? Perhaps Jesus can’t tell, because he can’t see and hear and feel their faith, as he can this man’s. For sure, he can’t sense their gratitude, for they just aren’t there.

Now you see why I think it’s scary to see these ten men representing the Church. You may have thought that a silly idea anyway, but I still think a case can be made for it. I mean, it could have worked. Had all ten caught fire, that would have given Jesus at least as much personpower as he could get out of the twelve even on a good day.

But only one in ten of those who are cleansed and loved and blessed and freed by Jesus choose God, choose to bring Jesus with them into their worlds.

Does that represent the church? If so, are you content with that? Do you expect that God is content with that? Can God’s work in the world be carried out if nine out of ten of us are content with the Way Things Are? Can one out of ten get nine others coordinated and in chorus enough to get the church unchained from The Way Things Used to Be?

Well, the beauty of this little story is, in fact, the power of one. The Lord who told you last week about the power of faith the size of a mustard seed tells you this week that one grateful person, one person willing to turn that gratitude into praise and that praise into action, will find one new step to take in this one new week to choose God, to bring Jesus into his or her world, to love, to represent a church that insists, with St. Paul, that the Word of God is not chained. And to insist that we, also, not be chained to walls of our own making.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

God's Work, Our Work

One of many reasons I love the Gospels is that they show so boldly the readiness of our Lord Jesus Christ to contradict his disciples. I’m talking about those moments in the disciples’ life together with Jesus when they said “The sky is blue,” and he replied, “No, it’s magenta—why can’t you see it?”

These are never dull moments. Electricity is snapping in the air between Jesus and his merry gang, at these moments. Like the time when two of them, let’s call them Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, nudged their mumsy to go ask Jesus to set them on his right side and his left, in glory. She obliged them, but Jesus would not.

Or that time when a bunch of them huddled like trigger-happy security experts and proposed to Jesus that they punish inhospitable Samaritans who refused to feed and house the gang from Galilee, calling down fire from heaven to deliver shock and awe. Jesus looked straight into their wild eyes and says, “Let it not be so among you.”

Today’s contradiction feels less charged, but let’s not be fooled. The apostles ask him to increase their faith. They want a truckload, and they want it now. They are not ready for what they hear. They want St. Michael and All Angels lighting their dark night like the aurora borealis. They want Joan of Arc, leading the charge. They want a touch of the rapture, with all the theological cooing that will convince them that they won’t be left behind. Instead, they get actual revelation, actual God-in-their faces revelation. And it’s a lesson about seeds and servants.

Julian of Norwich, 14th-century English mystic, was familiar with actual revelation. She wrote down sixteen revelations of divine love, showings of God, and pouring out of these pages is a religion of joy, an understanding that there is no anger in God (anger, she says, is a human franchise, not a divine one), and her theology rejoices in the motherhood, as well as the fatherhood and sonship, of God. Whether the apostles would have agreed with her, I cannot say; but they would find in her revelations a truckload of faith.

Yet Julian asks the question, “Yes, but how does it come about, this faith?” For her, actual revelation comes not in the expected way, but in the unexpected. Here is a very simple modern translation from the Middle English of what she wrote about one of her showings:

“And in this the Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. . .In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it."

Let me read that to you in another translation that keeps the flavor of the old language:

“Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.”

Lovely as that is, I’m going back to the simpler version. God shows Julian all that matters: that the God who made us loves us and preserves us. There is the holy trinity in a nutshell, literally. It is all the apostles need to face what’s frightening them, challenging them, overwhelming them. It’s all that we need, to face what’s frightening and challenging and overwhelming us.

What was having that effect on them? In general, it was their mission, the task, the work Jesus had sent them out to do. Notice that Luke doesn’t call them disciples here; he calls them apostles—a term we don’t expect to hear until his second volume, The Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Disciples sit and learn. Apostles are sent to work. In Luke’s Gospel, that has already happened, about eight chapters ago, so he’s showing us that the Christian life takes students of Christ and turns them into agents of Christ by the divine Spirit St. Paul tells us about today, “not…a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” that causes Christians to show Jesus to people, sometimes through how they handle suffering, and always through how they rely on the power of God. And how they recognize revelation in the hazelnuts they handle, day in and day out.

Apostles first have to be disciples. No, they always have to be disciples, learning to recognize actual revelation when they see it. And disciples have to become apostles, or else they turn to mush. Or worse, in retreating from being apostles, they become the opposite of who Jesus needs them to be—and then he must contradict them.

That’s happening today in our portion of Luke. What we haven’t heard can help us understand.

We all know the three most important things about real estate: location, location, location. Remember that, whenever you consider a little piece of scripture: the three most important things are context, context, context. Today’s portion may show you the house, but last Sunday’s—and what comes between—shows you the land it sits on.

Last Sunday, Lazarus, a beggar, is a little person who we come to see as having a great claim upon the heart of God, and so of the Church. Between that portion and today’s, Jesus teaches his disciples that if they cause a little one like Lazarus (but any little one) to stumble, they’re sunk as apostles (literally—“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.”) Then he tells them that disciples have got to confront one another with the truth as they work and live together, boldly contradict one another so that they keep to the truth, and when one repents, the other must forgive—even if the same person needs forgiving seven times a day.

Context shows us specifically why the disciples asked the Lord to increase their faith. They were trying to live by Jesus’s marching orders, but found them hard, painful, and scary.

“Increase your faith? You make it sound like you want to inflate yourselves with laughing gas,” I hear Jesus answer them. “Or earn a degree in righteousness. Or find a short cut to getting it right, as if what we’re talking about here is all about you and your goodness. It isn’t. It’s about God—and the world.”

And then, in the second part of this little Gospel, Jesus contradicts the kind of false hope that comes from fear and worry and exhaustion. “No, your life with me is not about getting everything right so you get promoted up from being a servant. The call to be my people in the world is the call to serve. Get used to it. Rejoice in it.”

And, he might have added, learn through it, learn through this call to serve, to value little things.

So he gets them thinking about seed. Small, but mighty—if we’re to judge by what dandelions do in our lawn, and forget-me-nots in our garden. And the message? If we want a seed to grow, we know that to do. We plant it in the light, we let it go, down into the earth where it will fall apart. What follows is a mystery way beyond our comprehension, the wonder of germination and growth. That is God’s work. But it takes the right care—watering, feeding, weeding—and that is our work.

What else can we say about seed? Being a disciple is seed for being an apostle. Being an apostle is like sending seeds into the wind, seeds of friendship and leadership and witness and service. Those seeds sprout and grow, and a new generation of disciples rises.

So let’s see if I can sum this up. The disciples are panicking, flipping out, overwhelmed by the demands of their calling. “We just can’t DO it, Jesus! Increase our faith!”

“This isn’t about you,” he replies. “Your calling is from God. God made you. God loves you. God preserves you.”


"That’s great!"


"Whew, for a while there…"

"Oh, so I can just…”

And in that moment, Jesus is reminded that this is his gang that can’t shoot straight. He contradicts his apostles once again: “This good news about God frees you for your calling. It doesn’t excuse you from the work. For there to be more disciples, you must be apostles! It’s a great endless chain of receiving and giving and receiving and giving that I have come to ensure on this earth. It all depends on God. And it all depends on you.”