Restored

 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.”

 

Touch makes us into persons. Whenever a newborn comes into our families, we want to touch the baby. The baby wants to be touched, needs to be touched. Without touch, a child lacks connection.

At the time of Jesus, lepers lived in segregated communities and were deprived of human touch. Not only were people prohibited from touching lepers, lepers lived apart and whenever they approached a person who was not a leper they had to alert others by crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Lepers were required to wear torn clothing and had to dishevel their hair to show to others how contaminated they were. At least they did not have to pay a beautician to do their hair every week! At least they did not have to get a new wardrobe every season!

These lepers lived on the margins of society, outside the city, perhaps in the hills and finding a home in the caves that dot the landscape. As lepers they lost their identities as someone’s daughter, someone’s husband, someone’s wife, someone’s friend. Perhaps their families remembered them and brought them food, blankets and maybe some medication to care for their disease. Perhaps they heard people in the towns talking about Jesus and  heard of his reputation as a healer. Perhaps they imagined that when their every hope was lost they had nothing to lose by approaching Jesus.

They sought something more than healing for their bodies. They craved the restoration of their identities, the rediscovery of their place in a community, the renewal of their relationships that made them the persons they became through their relationships. Notice how they keep their distance but make themselves known to Jesus by their shouting at him:  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to a priest which they obediently do.

As they going to the local rectory, they are cured. Do they see the stumps they called fingers miraculously heal and whole fingers start to grow? Does their skin return to its smooth texture? However they discover their cure, do they continue their journey to the priest? They needed a priest to give them permission to return to society. They discover they are cured and one returns to Jesus.

We know that Samaritans were looked down upon by other Jews. Samaritans obeyed the Law of Moses, they prayed to the Lord God, they read the same holy books and offered sacrifice. But they worshiped on a different mountain, not in Jerusalem. They were excluded from the same level of social acceptance as the rest of the Jews in Israel. Did this Samaritan experience the same level of exclusion even among the lepers?

The nine restored lepers knew where to go to get from their priest their certificate of restoration. Did this Samaritan leper not know where to go to get his All Pure Decree? Could he only return to Jesus, the source of his healing?

Notice how, before their cure, the lepers kept their distance from Jesus. But after his cure, the Samaritan leper draws close to Jesus, draws close to Jesus and prostrates himself in worship at the feet of Jesus.

In so many ways, we are just like those lepers who first approached Jesus. We hear of Jesus, we regularly worship, we might read the bible and we receive his body and blood. But even with this contact with Jesus, do we still keep him at a distance. If we do not draw near to Jesus, what keeps us from him?

What if we were to discover that which keeps us from drawing close to Jesus? What if we were to discover that we are just like those lepers, desperately in need of Jesus’ healing? Jesus comes to us, heals us, restores us. How do we respond?

We go to our healing Christ to rediscover for ourselves that identity we receive from the healing of Christ. Christ’s healing touches our hearts, the broken places in our lives, the disconnected parts of our souls.

In restoring our relationships, Christ brings us not only into relationship with him but also into relationship with one another.

Like the outcast Samaritan leper, the leper who discovered not only a healed body but more importantly a healed heart, we too should come to Jesus with grateful hearts. May all of us set as our primary goal a deeper relationship with Jesus, a recognition of our need for healing and our turning to Christ for that inner change. Perhaps we too can return to Christ with a healed heart, a grateful heart, a generous heart. In returning to Christ we will discover Christ turning to us, healing us and drawing us not as a powerful Lord but as a dear friend. A friend extending his hand in healing. A friend touching us with love. A dear friend leading us from brokenness to wholeness.

 

 

 

��M

The Survivor Tree — A Story of Faith

Luke 17:5-10

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The 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. 7“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’? 8Would 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’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!’”

 

Tragedy has the uncanny ability to rattle our faith. The greater the tragedy the deeper the disruption. When the World Trade Centers crashed to the ground, many of us wondered if our faith could survive the crash.

Michael Arad was in New York City on September 11. As he felt the loss in the city, he imagined two holes in the shape of the buildings’ outline, opening up in the Hudson River and the river pouring into those vacant spaces. Michael Arad is an architect and that image translated itself into the design he submitted to the September 11 Memorial Committee, the design that won the competition. The design is more that cobblestones, steel and flowing water. Living trees spot the plaza and stand, in the middle of the absence, as a sign of the persistence of hope when faith fails.

Perhaps of all the trees on the Plaza, the Survivor Tree has the most complex story. In October of 2001, a Callery Pear tree was discovered amid the rubble of the World Trade Center. When the buildings came crashing down, the rubble cut off the branches and the crown of the tree. The tree’s roots were broken. The bark on the tree was burned. When, on an October day, the tree was discovered, in spite of the trauma it suffered, it began to put our new leaves. Quite a surprising thing for a tree to do in October when it usually drops its leaves. The energy of life was surging through the tree, giving it new life. The tree was uprooted, taken to the Arthur Ross Nursery in Van Courtlandt Park in the Bronx. It was only eight feet tall when it made it back to the nursery.

So many people invested their hope in that tree. They supported it, nurtured its injured root system, and they fed it and mulched it that winter of 2001. When spring arrived, buds appeared on the tree and then flowers. In 2010, the Survivor Tree was transplanted to the plaza of the September 11 Memorial. Every spring, the survivor tree puts out its fragrant white flowers, the only flowering tree amid the forest of Swamp White Oaks on the plaza.

We heard today the story of another unplanted tree. Jesus tells us today:  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. (Lk. 17:6) Most of us hear these words and shake our heads since we know that we could not work that magic which would uproot trees. So we doubt our faith and we question ourselves. But those are unnecessary worries we lay on our hearts.

Jesus never intended us to believe that if we had that faith mustard seed faith that we could command trees to dance their way into the sea. It is only a figure of speech.

Let’s remember that the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith not out of the blue but in the context of his previous challenge. If you would open the Gospel according to Luke to the beginning of Chapter 17, you would read Jesus’ admonition that we should forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times. Jesus continues in today’s passage to advise the apostles that they are also called to be servants in the community. In the context of those two challenges of living the Christian life, we hear the apostles give voice to our own plea:  Lord, increase our faith. So how should we hear Jesus’ seemingly impossible reply about moving trees into the sea if we had even a bit of faith?

Let’s look into our hearts because that faith is already there. Perhaps we do not recognize that faith because we call it by different names. We experience that mustard seed faith as the strength which leads us through the painful experiences of our lives. We experience mustard seed faith as the hope that we can discover meaning when the rug gets pulled out from under us. We experience mustard seed faith as that pull of our hearts to go deeper into the Christian life, to give up time on whatever we do and to put in time for prayer, for reading the bible, for practicing that part of Christian living which presents the greatest challenge for me today. Our faith pulls us like a magnet and faith draws us deeper into a relationship with God, an ever-developing friendship with Christ and an unanticipated sharing in love of the Holy Spirit. We feel that faith well up in us and it moves through our lives with all the give and take of any of our relationships.

Once we begin that relationship with God, once we agree to be in a relationship with Jesus, God has a way of luring us deeper and leading us to new levels of our relationship which means new levels of faith. The great mystery of our faith consists in our ability to survive attacks on it. Just as the Survivor Tree endured the attack of September 11 and found new life surging through it, so too our faith gets us through the deepest problems we face.

When our life feels like the burned bark of the Survivor Tree, a deep energy of life, an enduring persistence, surges through us.

What do we fall back on when the going gets rough? What gets us through in the face of the seemingly impossible? What is that energy which pushes out new leaves from a tree that should have died?

Faith is that hope that shines as a light when we feel surrounded by deepest darkness. For our faith opens up for us that mystery of God as a living relationship with a living person. God draws us ever deeper into that mystery.

Let us dare to pray with the apostles:  “Increase our faith!”Let us dare to believe that the Spirit already planted that faith deep in our hearts. No matter how damaged your faith, how small your hope, how timid your love, wait on God when it seems lost. Then anticipate that new leaves of faith will blossom.

The Persistence of Hope

The Persistence of Hope

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

6 Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. 9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

 The end of the American Civil War devastated the southern states as the northern armies destroyed many cities and homesteads.  Perhaps Joan Baez gave voice to that trauma which broke the bonds of our nation in her song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. I’m going to try and sing the refrain and you join me on the Na na na’s

The night they drove old Dixie down

And all the bells were ringin'

The night they drove old Dixie down

And all the people were singin'

They went, "Na, na, na, na, na, na

Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na"

 Many of us distance ourselves from that glorification of the legacy of the Southern cause since we understand the racism which validated slavery and that the Civil War was fought to overturn that immoral system.  Yet the heartbreak of people witnessing the burning of their homes, churches and civil buildings resemble the feeling of the people of Jerusalem in today’s first reading. When the people mounted the walls of Jerusalem, they could see the Babylonian army surrounding the city. While the false prophets predicted that God would overturn the Babylonian army, Jeremiah told the people they should surrender to the Babylonians. The Jewish leaders convinced the king that he should not surrender. Everybody knew that some great calamity was about to destroy the country. Everybody knew that they were about to lose everything.

At that very moment, when everything seems lost, Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, makes his way from their hometown of Anathoth, a town already under the control of the Babylonians, with a property deal for Jeremiah. It does not take a genius to understand that all the land in a country about to be destroyed is not worth a pile of beans.

Going back to that song I mentioned at the beginning, just imagine the people from Atlanta to Savannah after Sherman devastated the state of Georgia. You could not get top dollar on real estate in Savannah after it was burned by Sherman. Keep that detail of real estate in mind when you remember that Jeremiah paid top dollar for his cousin’s property in war ravaged Anathoth. Only a fool would buy that property. And God told Jeremiah to play the fool.

Why? God told Jeremiah to look beyond the immediate destruction: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. (Jer 32: 15)

It takes a special type of vision to see promise when destruction surrounds us. It takes the persistence of hope to see the light when all we experience is darkness. That hope comes to us only from God.

For an addict who is struggling with sobriety, for the person caught in a job without any personal satisfaction, for the family who have lost the fun in their dysfunctionality, for the person who so desires that loved one who never seems to come on the scene, hope seems like an elusive bird. So many of us know that poem by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

 

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

 

I've heard it in the chillest land

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

 

The prophet Jeremiah paid a terrible price for the prophetic gift which he was given. God gave him the painful task of reprimanding a nation intent on taking a path away from God, a path which lead to their own destruction. God secretly told Jeremiah that 70 years would pass from the time Jerusalem would fall until the time the people would return from their captivity in Babylon.

If we put ourselves in Jeremiah’s shoes, we would feel the challenge of buying a piece of land which we would never see revived in our life time. For that reason, Jeremiah took the deed for the property, put it into a jar and buried it so that a future generation would discover it and some into a land which was valuable. God asks us to take that leap of faith, to journey into the darkness and anticipate restoration. For those of us suffering from wounds, physical, emotional or spiritual, wounds which seem to defy healing, God invites us to step into the darkness with that persistent hope that light will shine for us. For those of us caught in a pattern of living so that we feel as if we are on a merry go round, perhaps God invites us to get off the carousel and discover a different way.

All too often, we get caught in patterns which we have lived for years, we lose hope of ever moving beyond that pattern, and then something alights in soul and shows us a light we had never before seen. Pray today for that persistent hope to dawn in your heart. Wait, be willing to wait, even as Jeremiah waited, and look for a light to dawn a light you never imagined.

 

Jesus and Money

What are the two things which you were told not to discuss in polite society? Yes, God and Money. In following Jesus’ lead from today’s gospel, I shall throw caution to the wind and violate that primary rule we were taught.

We live in a society which places such a high value on money that we develop multiple industries to manage it. Bankers, stock investors, financial planners help us to navigate the complex world of money management.  Even for us of modest means, money plays an important role in the decisions of our lives. 

Yet many of us run on auto pilot in our money management. We inherited from our parents an attitude toward money, and for many of us that attitude is marked by the scarcity of money after the Depression of the 1930’s.

When it comes to God and money, we associate money and the church with the annual appeal before we make our pledge.  If some of us notice that Jesus regularly talks about money we might imagine he tells us to give it to the poor and follow him. Since most of us think Jesus only wants us to abandon money, we fail to hear his other words describing the right attitude toward money. If you carefully listen to the Gospel according to Luke, you will notice that Jesus teaches two seemingly contradictory lessons on money:  give it all away or make regular contributions to support the needy.  Since most of us count ourselves as regular contributors, we imagine that if we just give the same amount we have given for years, that we are fulfilling our responsibilities as disciples.  But what if Jesus invites us to a deeper responsibility toward money as a spiritual practice?

If we think that today’s parable of the crafty steward defines Jesus’ attitude toward wealth, we might think he should go back to school to learn some lessons about upright behavior. Our first reaction to the parable comes from the little child in us; we scream “Unfair!” Why should we take the example of an underhanded money manager as a model for our Christian use of money?

Perhaps we should place the parable in the context  of the economy of Jesus’ day. All of us know as goods move up the production ladder from the person who made the item to us who buy it everyone takes a cut of the costs.  Just think of all the people who handle that tomato you purchased from Shop Rite for tonight salad and you will know how many people take a cut on the profit. If a wealthy distributor in Jerusalem bought oil, wheat and wine, his chief steward would mark up prices first for his boss and them for his cut of the profit.  If the steward bought oil from a local farmer, he would mark up the price 50% for the boss and 20% for his own cut.

Everybody in the ancient world knew the system was rigged. Jesus knew the system was rigged. When Jesus tells this parable, he presents the picture of a steward who is reducing the exorbitant mark ups which would have gone in his pocket. If we place that parable in the ancient world’s system of markups, perhaps we can see that Jesus is inviting us to compassionate giving in our dealings with others. From this understanding of the parable, we can now imagine that Jesus would have a lot to say about the strike impacting UAW workers, that Jesus would stand on the side of those demanding a more equitable sharing of profits. Jesus would have a lot to say to the top 1% who hoard money they do not need.

But Jesus invites us to go deeper in the way we deal with money. Jesus points to our hearts and asks us to discern the direction of our heart with money. Is our heart set on God or is our heart set on money? It does not matter how much or how little money we have. Money can seduce us, set its hook into us and lead us away from God. Jesus invites us to a wise use of money and not to make ourselves the slave of money. Such a wise use of money involves knowing how to use it, how to invest it, how to share it. Money is a means for us to advance God’s reign. Money cannot take the place of God in our hearts.

One of the blessings of being an Episcopalian over one of those churches in the backwoods of Appalachia lies in our drawing a dividing line when it comes to snake handling.  We don’t have a basket in the sacristy filled with rattle snakes and the leaders of the church do not have to prove our faith by playing that game of touching the snakes while avoiding their venomous fangs. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from them in realizing that money can be a venomous snake. Our management of that snake will keep us far from its venom. Our management of money should alert us to its danger as well as its possibility. Our challenge lies not so much on attending to the snake as attending to our hearts.

If our hearts are focused on God, the giver of the gift, we will steer clear of that idolatry so rampant in our nation and our world. If our hearts are focused on God, the giver of the gift, we will become like the one we love and so learn the lesson from the crafty servant:  That it far better to trust mercy over justice for mercy will lead us to our true home.