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.