Monday, October 31, 2016

Living by Faith (Hab.1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10)

Sara Miles, in her spiritual memoir titled, Take this Bread, explains how she came to faith. She was raised an atheist, but for some reason wandered into an Episcopal church one day in San Francisco, where everyone was welcomed and encouraged to take Communion. So she ate the bread and drank the wine and found that it somehow nourished her soul and quenched her thirst. She kept going back and grew into a disciple of Jesus.  

Being in California, she discovered that they had access to inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables. So on Fridays, she started a food pantry – right in the middle of their beautiful Sanctuary. All are welcome. There are no forms to fill out. People come and choose what they want. The down-and-out, the addicted, the messed up, the homeless, all are welcome and all are treated with dignity. Sara and the other volunteers pray with those who want prayer, they listen and bless those who need a blessing. And those who come are considered part of their church community.

In her book she underscores that Christian faith is more about “orthopraxy” than it is about “orthodoxy.” That is, authentic faith is more about right practice than it is about right belief. She discovered that faith was not foremost about theology. It was not foremost about denominations or creeds or rituals. It wasn’t about liberal or conservative ideology. It was primarily about faith working through love. She writes: “That could mean plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope. It could look more like prayer: opening yourself to uncertainty, accepting your lack of control. It meant taking on concrete tasks in the middle of confusion, without stopping to argue about who was the truest believer.”

In other words she learned that growing into faith meant growing into a lifestyle of compassion and love of neighbor, and the neighbor could be anyone with a need. It meant growing in one’s capacity to trust God and trust other people. It meant growing in faithfulness to stay with the tasks that might help heal and encourage others.

When Habakkuk says in 2:4 that the righteous or just live by their faith he is not primarily saying that they live by a set of beliefs, though I don’t want to downplay the importance of healthy beliefs. It is certainly true that what we believe about God will impact and influence how we relate to God and how we relate to others. But what Habakkuk is saying is that the just or righteous continue to be faithful to God’s cause in the world no matter how bad things get. For the just to live by faith means that they continue to trust God and faithfully live out their commitment to do what is just, good, right, and merciful regardless of the obstacles and the challenges they face in pursuing justice and peace, and living out the social ethic of God’s kingdom which is love of neighbor. Living by faith is being faithful to God’s cause, not believing doctrines about God.

Habakkuk’s oracle begins with a complaint. Why, O God, is there so much injustice? Why is there so much violence and bloodshed? Why is it that the wicked hem in the righteous? Why is justice being so perverted?

What do we do when hell engulfs us? When we face wave after wave of hardship or difficulty? When we find ourselves up against a brick wall that impedes our progress? What do we do when things don’t go as expected, when our plans get thwarted, our dreams dashed, when our questions and our prayers go unanswered, just the way Habakkuk’s did? Can we continue to live by faith? Can we continue to believe that God is good? Can we continue to trust that God is with us and God is for us, even though we cannot feel or sense or see God’s presence and participation in our lives? Can we continue to be faithful to do what is just and fair and right?

Let me offer two responses that I have found helpful, so maybe you will too. First, we can look back with a sacred memory. Chapter 3 of Habakkuk takes the form of a psalm that was most likely set to music. And in this song of faith the prophet remembers and rehearses God’s past participation in the lives of God’s people. He remembers how God brought healing and liberation. “I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work,” says the prophet.

People of other faith traditions will have a different sacred memory than we do and there is nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, because God is a big God and God works in many diverse ways through many different mediators, prophets, healers, and teachers of wisdom. God can work through many different religious traditions. But for us Christians our sacred memory culminates and is centralized in the one we confess as Lord. We remember the life and teachings of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and that gives us the hope to trust in his living presence with us, among us, and in us. This is what we are doing when we share in the bread and cup of Holy Communion. When we come together and partake of the bread and cup we are remembering what God has done for us, how God has acted in and through Jesus to draw us into relationship with God’s self and to show us how to love and care for one another.

Heather Whitestone, you may remember was the Miss America who was deaf. Do you know what she did for her talent competition? She danced. I read somewhere that in her preparation she placed a special hearing device to her ear and played it very loud, which allowed her to faintly hear the music. She then memorized the music — every beat. When the time came for her to dance, she moved gracefully to the rhythm of the music she couldn’t hear, but she remembered. We too remember the music of past encounters and experiences, but especially we remember and celebrate the ways God has broken into our lives through Jesus.

For Habakkuk, the sacred memory of God’s past engagement in the lives of God’s people becomes the foundation for the prophet’s prayer and hope. He says, “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our time revive it; in our time make it known.” God has acted and God continues to act. God continues to speak and participate in the human project. The prophet hears God say, “For there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . if it seems to tarry, wait for it.” In 2:14 the prophet shares what he sees. He says, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

So, if we are to live by faith, first it will be helpful to look back in sacred remembrance of a God who has acted and spoken. Second, we can also look forward in hope that the vision of a just and peaceful world will one day be realized because God is still acting and speaking. God is still drawing, luring, and moving humanity forward – inviting and inspiring us to grow, evolve, and become more like the God who loves us, who is with us and for us and will never forsake us or let us go.

One of the key ways God instills this vision and nurtures this hope is through you and me. God heals humanity through humanity. God saves humanity through humanity. As I have said many times the great truth Christianity brings to the world is the truth of incarnation. God incarnating God’s self in flesh and blood. It is the divine (Spirit) in you that speaks to the divine (Spirit) in me, and vice versa.

The story of Zacchaeus is a story of what is possible. It’s a story that inspires hope. The story of Zacchaeus skillfully picks us threads of previous stories narrated by Luke. One of the threads connects to the story of the rich ruler who comes to Jesus wanting to experience more of the kind of life that characterizes those who live in God’s kingdom. Jesus told him to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow him, and he would discover the abundance of God’s kind of life. He couldn’t do it and walked away dejected. Jesus then said, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they said in astonishment, “Who then can be saved? Who then can be healed and made whole? Who then can be liberated and set free? Jesus responded, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

Then next, we hear about Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector who is also rich like the rich ruler who walked away. He too seeks Jesus. Here is a man who virtually sold his soul for money. He was a collaborator with the enemy. A traitor. He was an instrument of the oppressive Roman government that imposed heavy burdens on his fellow Jews. He had wed himself to this unjust system in order to acquire power and possessions. And yet because of his encounter with Jesus that all changed. Money lost its hold on him. He was freed from his greed. None of what use to matter mattered anymore. He awakened to a whole new vision. He says rejoicing, “I will give half of all my possessions to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will make restitution fourfold.” Jesus proclaimed, “Today, salvation (liberation, transformation) has come to this house.” God working in and through the human Jesus did what the disciples thought impossible and the camel passed through the eye of a needle.

The conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus is left to our imagination. We don’t get to listen in. Though I can’t help but feel that Zacchaeus was at a place in his life where he was questioning the course of life he choose, maybe questioning his own worth as a human being. He had become wealthy, but at what cost. His fellow countrymen would have despised him. Many would have had contempt for him. He probably thought God felt the same way.

But then, I can imagine, Zacchaeus hearing rumors about this prophet and sage from Galilee who was very different than all the holy people he knew. He would have heard how Jesus sits down to table with both the righteous and the unrighteous, with Pharisees and sinners. He would have heard how Jesus lifts up the downtrodden, heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, sets free the captives, liberates the oppressed, and how he compassionately welcomes all those who have been written off and condemned. Maybe that instilled some hope. Maybe he started to believe that there could still be a place in God’s kingdom for a greedy traitor who turned his back on his own kin.

One evening the Sci-fi channel was playing a movie based on Stephen King’s book, “The Stand” and I caught it about half-way through. I picked up the story line fairly easily. It’s a classic tale about the conflict between good and evil, with some interesting echoes and parallels with the Jesus story. There was a devil figure named Flag and a Christ or Savior figure, who was an elderly African American woman known as Mother Abigal. A young man, who becomes one of the inner circle (of disciples) and ends up playing a vital role in the story is a deaf mute. He is a very compassionate person, but he doesn’t believe in God. In one scene, Mother Abigal is talking about God and the role that this young man will play in accomplishing the will of God, when one of the members of their little group speaks up and says, “But he doesn’t believe in God.” Mother Abigal, not surprised at all, turns gently to the young deaf man and looking directly to him says, “That’s okay child, because God believes in you.”

I wonder. Who do you know or I know that might need to hear that message? Might there be persons in your family, in your workplace, in your neighborhood, in your network of friends who need to hear and know that you believe in them. And sensing that you believe in them maybe they can trust that God believes in them too. You see, God works through humanity, through you and me, to redeem humanity.

This is our calling as the body of Christ. To act in God’s stead. To represent the Christ. The Spirit in us, speaks and works through us connecting with the Spirit in the other. Everyone has the Spirit, everyone bears the image of God, even though many do not know it.   

Well, let me end where I started and say to those of you who may just be tempted to throw in the towel because the storms you have had to face seem overwhelming. Don’t give up. Keep remembering how God has given us Jesus and showed us God’s love through him and in numerous other ways. Keep trusting and hoping because even though we might not be able to see, sense, or feel God in our midst, God hasn’t left. And maybe when one of us is down, God can use the other to left up the one who is down.

Write down the vision, says the prophet. Make it plain. Live by faith. God still speaks. God is at work. The glory of the Lord fills the earth. If we just had eyes to see. So be faithful. Do good. Act justly. Pursue mercy. Walk humbly. Keep loving and caring.

Let’s sing with God’s prophet the final stanza of his song of faith: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” And that is my prayer for all of us. Amen

Monday, October 17, 2016

How long will it take? (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 18:1-8)

How long, Lord? I suspect we have all asked that question haven’t we? We may have asked that question after weeks or perhaps months or maybe even years of our own struggle or a loved one’s struggle with a serious illness. We may have asked out of the despair of a deep betrayal or a marriage or partnership driven and tossed upside down by one conflict after another. Or it may have been after months of trying to find work related to our skills and training. How Long, Lord? We cry.

The widow in our story who was a victim of injustice must have felt that way? “Grant me justice” she keeps crying out to the unjust judge. It’s interesting that Luke interprets this parable as a call to pray always and not lose heart, which reminds us of Jesus’ earlier teaching on prayer in Luke 11 where Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” Asking is an important part of any relationship and it’s an important part of our relationship with God. And just as we ask of God, God asks things of us. It’s a mutual relationship.

Now, I have to be honest with you. I don’t begin to know how this works. And no one else really knows either, though some may claim to know. I make requests of God. I intercede for others. As a church we pray for one another. We pray for healing and wisdom and all sorts of things. Sometimes we think our prayers have made a difference, other times we are not so sure. Why is that? I don’t know. What I don’t believe is that God hears some prayers and not others. I believe God hears all our prayers. I also believe (and this may surprise you) that there are spiritual, non-physical, maybe even psychic forces at work  in our lives and in our world (maybe at the quantum level) that influence and impact our lives, and our prayers may activate these forces in some way. I am enough of a mystic to know that not everything has a rational explanation. But I also don’t think it is God’s practice to intervene into our lives in some direct way either. So, I don’t know how this works, but I still pray.

This story in its original form probably was not about prayer at all, but this is how Luke interprets the story and applies it. But it’s not just any prayer that Luke has in mind. It is a particular kind of prayer that is in view. It is a prayer for justice. “Grant me justice,” cries the widow.

Why do you think the one who is crying for justice is a widow? In that culture widows were extremely vulnerable. They did not automatically inherit their husband’s property, there were no social programs in place, and for the most part there were no opportunities for independent employment. Widows were easy prey for predators of all types. This widow’s cry is for justice.

By justice, I do not mean, “Getting what one deserves.” Unfortunately, that’s how many Christians understand it. Jesus’ kind of justice is restorative and redemptive. The biblical word can be translated either as “justice” or “righteousness.” To pursue justice or righteousness is to pursue that which makes for right relations and good will between human beings, between human beings and God, and between human beings and all creation. It basically means being in right relationship or pursuing right relations – with God, each other, and everything else. Justice is about making everything right, whole, just, and good. It’s about the healing and liberation of individuals, communities, societies, and putting in place structures and systems that truly advance the well-being of all people, not just a few people.

This is why, sisters and brothers, we must care about such things as basic human rights and freedoms for people of all countries (though there may be little we can actually do about it). But here in our country we do have a vote and a voice. So we must care about immigration reform, climate change, fairness laws, equality in the work place, bringing positive change to an unjust social and economic system that produces poverty and the huge disparity between rich and poor. We must care about fairness in our criminal justice system, and fairness in law enforcement. We must care about creation care, eliminating oppression in all its forms, and everything else that affects the wellbeing of individuals, societies, and planet earth. These are all issues and concerns related to the biblical concept of justice.

The logic in the story moves from the lesser to the greater. The logic is that if an unjust judge who does not fear God or have respect for people is compelled to act justly on behalf of a widow who pesters him day and night, how much more will God, who is compassionate and good, act justly on behalf of the oppressed? The point here is that God is not like the unjust judge at all. But if an unjust judge can render justice, how much more our good and just God.

Now the question is: How long will it take? The story teller asks: “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” In the historical context of the first disciples the coming of the Son of Man quickly probably reflects the belief that Jesus was going to come back in some fashion to bring this about. It’s also fairly clear from a number of passages in the New Testament that these first disciples believed this would happen relatively soon, very possibly in their lifetime. Of course, they were mistaken.

Some theologians believe God will intervene at some point in human history to bring about justice in the world. This is usually identified with the second coming of Jesus, which was clearly the dominant view of the early Christians. However, in light of some other documents that have come to light (such as the Gospel of Thomas for example) we now know that not all early Christians believed this. Many did, probably most, but not all. Other theologians believe, as I do now now, that God’s justice will come about in God’s way and God’s time at the end of human history after human evolution has run its course.

I am convinced that the future of human life on this planet resides in us. That is barring some unforeseen catastrophic event like a meteor strike. I believe it is God’s plan to work through human beings to save human beings, to bring peace and justice to all people and God’s creation.

I guess the big question is: Is this possible? Will we ever learn? Will we ever grow up? Will we ever realize our human potential? How long will it take? Hard questions. And when we ask, “How long?” we are obviously coming at it from a temporal point of view, rather than an eternal one. Most certainly, God has a different relationship to time than we have. I love the story about the economist who read the text in 2 Peter that says with the Lord a thousand years is like a day. He asked   “God, wouldn’t it also be true that a million years to us, would be like a minute to you?” And God said, “Yes, I do not experience time the way you do.” Then he asked, “Wouldn’t it also be true that a million dollars to us, would be a like one penny to you?” And God said, “Well, yes.” So then the economist asked, “God, could I have one of those pennies?” And God said, “Yes, Wait here—a minute.”

If 98% of the scientists in our world are right, it took approximately 13.8 billion years (give or take a few million years) for life to evolve to its present state. Surely, God has a much different relationship to time than we do. And I would guess that at this stage in our moral and spiritual evolution as a species we cannot be much past adolescence can we? I mean look at us.  America is considered to be one of the most developed nations in the world and just look at the state of our democracy right now. The question is: Will we destroy ourselves before we wake up? Unfortunately our technological expertise has evolved faster than our moral will and spiritual wisdom. We have fashioned enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy all of life on this planet several times over. So, in light of our destructive capabilities and tendencies, this question of “How long before justice prevails on the earth?” is an extremely urgent one. How long will it take for us to wake up? To be enlightened? To be transformed?  How long will it take for us to develop the spiritual wisdom and moral will to make the pursuit of justice for all our top priority?

Jeremiah envisions such a time. Jeremiah envisions a day when the law of God, the will of God, the restorative justice of God that brings peace and life to all people will be written on our hearts. We will not need written codes or legal rules and legislation to tell us how to live in right relations with one another and with creation, because we will just know. The knowledge will reside in our hearts and we will have the moral will and courage to act on that knowledge.

I’m sure you have all heard by now the recording of Donald Trump bragging about his sexual exploits, which, in the way he describes it amounts to sexual assault. Now the question supporters of Mr Trump have to ask is this: Was this recording of his braggadocios claims of sexual assault an exception to what is really in his heart or was it a reflection of what is really in his heart?

And we need to point this back at ourselves. What am I really like in the core of my being? Now, I believe we are all children of God. But that reality doesn’t mean we live like children of God does it? So the question is: Will I live out who I am? Will I incarnate that reality? And much of that depends on whether or not I am undergoing spiritual and moral transformation? Am I on a path that pursues compassion, equality, healing, and liberation for all people, not just a few people.

This passage in Jeremiah envisions a time when the people of God are truly transformed. They pursue justice, they pursue the good, they love God and love neighbor, they express empathy and compassion, they give of themselves in service to others, not as an exception to who they are, but as an expression of who they are. They seek to live in right relations with all people. They pursue what is right and good and loving and just, because this is who they are, it’s what’s in their hearts. They pursue God’s dream for justice in the world because this is what is in their hearts.

The final question posed by Luke in response to the parable of Jesus is an important one: When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth? This, of course, as I mentioned earlier reflects the belief of the early Christians that Jesus is going to come back in some sense to bring justice to the world. But what I want emphasize here is that faith is better understood as faithfulness – it’s the same word in the Greek. This is not, “Will he find people who believe in God?” That’s not really the question. Rather, the question is, “Will he find people who are acting, living, and thinking like God?” Will he find people who are being faithful to God’s calling to pursue what is right and good and loving? Will he find people committed to the healing of the hurting and the liberation of the oppressed? Will he find people living out God’s justice? That’s the issue.

One of the great teachings that Christianity has given to the world is the teaching of incarnation. And the teaching of incarnation at its best says that God dwells with and in the creation, especially his human creation. Much privilege and responsibility has been given the human creation to care for the rest of creation and to care for one another in order to fashion a world of justice and peace. 

Now, if you don’t get anything else out of this sermon I hope this will stick with you: I have very little doubt that God intends for humanity to be the answer to the prayer of humanity. God intends for us to be the answer to our prayer. We pray for justice, and God says, “Act justly, pursue mercy, live humbly.” We pray for justice, and God says, “Love one another and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We pray for justice, and God says, “Lay down your lives for the liberation of others.” God lives and acts through people committed to justice.

How long will it take? I suppose as long as it takes for us to wake up and realize who we are and to live out our calling as God’s daughters and sons in the world. God has given us models. We have living examples and incarnations of divine justice. For those of us who are Christians, Jesus is Lord. Jesus is our primary embodiment of what God’s justice looks like. Jesus is our model. God’s justice looks like the grace, compassion, mercy, generosity, and sacrifice of Jesus.

Let’s keep praying for justice, let’s keep praying for peace on earth, for reconciliation of enemies, for equality, for the elimination of poverty and oppression, for healing and liberation. Let’s keep praying. But how long will it take for us to realize that we are God’s answer to that prayer?

Our good God, help us to wake up. Help us as a species, as a people created in your image to live more true and faithful to our calling to bear and reflect your image. Our world desperately needs more image bearers. There is so much potential for good all around us. Help us to live out that potential. Give us a passion for your kind of justice. Not the selfish kind that seeks revenge or retribution, but the kind that seeks redemption and healing and restoration. Empower us to be the answer to our prayer. Amen.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Putting the Common in Good (Jer. 29:1; 4-7; Luke 17:11-19)

The text today from Jeremiah is really quite remarkable when you think about it. Some texts, of course, simply perpetuate the status quo, even offering justifications for national exceptionalism, violence, and the stratification of society. But other texts turn the tables. There are texts that critique, confront, and challenge the status quo. These break out texts tend to transcend historical context and culture. When I look at scripture I see degrees and levels of inspiration and authority. My take on it is that some scriptures are more inspired that other texts and advance the ball way down the field.

Today’s reading from Jeremiah is a break out text. The word that the New Oxford Annotated Bible uses to describe this text is revolutionary. The reason that word is used by the author of the comments on Jeremiah in the Oxford Annotated Bible is because the text seems to move far beyond where most of the people were at that stage in Israel’s religious evolution and development. Instead of the typical: Israel is holy. Babylon is unholy. Therefore, come out and be separate from them. Don’t eat their food or adopt their customs (which we get that in other scriptures like the book of Daniel for example). Here we have a text that says to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon: Live among them, marry their sons and daughters, and pursue the well-being of the city and country where you dwell. In other words, pray for and work toward the common good. The reason the Oxford Bible calls this “revolutionary” is because this is such a leap ahead of its time. Think about it. This text moves us beyond religious exceptionalism, beyond religion elitism, beyond the dualism of in group/out group religion and challenges us to pray and work for the common good.

Of course, we can choose to ignore these break out texts and simply dwell upon those texts that maintain the status quo of the culture at the time. I did this in the first part of my Christian journey. At that stage in my religious development I had no interest at all in the common good. Why? Because of the kind of Christianity I was socialized and indoctrinated into it. It’s as simple as that.  

I was taught to divide the world between the saved and the unsaved – I was in, of course, because I believed the right things and was part of the right group, but so many others were out. And the only way they could get in was through salvation in Jesus. That is, salvation in Jesus as I understood it and preached salvation in Jesus. I had the truth and there was only one way the “unsaved” could be numbered among the saved. They had to accept my plan of salvation. Of course, I didn’t call it my plan, I called it God’s plan. I had the answers, or so I thought.

Another reason I had no interest in the common good is because I pushed salvation almost completely into the future. I believed at the time that it really wasn’t about making this world better. Oh, it’s okay if you want to make the world better, but it’s really a waste of time. I carried a Scofield Reference Bible and believed Hal Lindsey spoke the infallible word on the end times, so I believed the world was racing toward Armageddon. The world was headed for disaster and there was nothing we could do to prevent it. So, really, the main thing for us to do was to be prepared for heaven and try to take some people with us by getting them to become like us.  

If you read one of my sermons that I preached then (which would have been a snapshot of my faith at that stage in my religious development) and compare it to a more recent sermon now (a snapshot of my faith now), you would say, “There’s no way this came from the same person.” (By the way that’s really what our sacred texts are – snapshots of the faith of the authors). So what happened? I evolved. I grew. I have become more than I was, though I will be the first to admit I have a long way to go. And sisters and brothers, I am convinced today more than ever, we must keep growing as individuals and as a species. We must keep expanding our view of God and God’s relationship to the world, not just for our sakes, bur for our world’s sake. Our world needs persons and groups and communities of faith to lead the way in bringing diverse people and groups together to work for peace and fairness and equality and justice and to promote beliefs and practices that will further the common good.

So, what can we do to promote the common good? We can begin right where we are. Within our network of connections and relationships we can respect everyone, and not feel like we have to convert them to our way of thinking. We can treat everyone as God’s beloved daughters and sons regardless of what they believe or don’t believe or the particular group they identify with. Acceptance does not depend on agreement or sameness or conformity. Acceptance can thrive in diversity. We can recognize how we share a common humanity and how we all, in some sense, bear responsibility for one another, regardless of how different we may be.

As a Christian I believe that in the religious development of humanity we reach a pinnacle (the biblical concept here is fulfillment) in Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospels. Clearly in the life of Jesus inclusion trumps exclusion. Jesus is always tearing down walls and breaking boundaries to extend God’s compassion and love.

Our Gospel text for this Sunday in Luke 17 is about one of ten lepers healed by Jesus. The leper healed in our story returns to thank Jesus and praise God for his healing. I have used this text a number of times to preach and teach on gratitude. And I have no doubt that gratitude is an important theme of this story.

Jesus says to healed leper returning to give thanks, “Your faith has made you well.” One could just as easily translate this: Your faith has saved you, healed you, or made you whole or complete.” In the Gospels salvation is always about healing and liberation from some oppressive power – whether it’s the systemic injustice of the religious or political system or ones’ own personal sin like greed or selfish ambition or resentment or some form of addiction. It’s about being made whole. So what Jesus is saying then is that gratitude is a vital part of our healing and transformation. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to live a spiritual life without some measure of gratitude.

So, in one sense this story in Luke 17 is about the importance of gratitude for living a spiritual life, but there is more to it than that. Luke clearly intended more. Luke tells us that the man who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan. Not a Jew, but a Samaritan. A man of a different race and religion than Jesus and his disciples.

Clarence Jordan was the founder of an interracial community in Americas, Georgia, before the civil rights movement. He and his community suffered ridicule and persecution from the surrounding community. Jordan liked to retell the Gospel stories using a contemporary vernacular and by setting them in his own context. These readings have been published as Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel.

Listen to his Cotton Patch reading of this story in Luke: While Jesus was on his way to Atlanta, he went through the ghetto of Griffin, where he was met by ten winos who stood at a distance and yelled, “Mister Jesus, have mercy on us!” When he saw them he said, “Okay, go show yourselves to the doctor.” And as they were going, they were cured. Now one of them, realizing that he was cured, turned around and shouted at the top of his voice, “Praise God! Praise God!” Then he got down before Jesus and thanked him. This particular one was a black man. So Jesus said, “Weren’t there ten of you that got healed? Where are the other nine? Well, well. So didn’t any of them come back here to praise and thank God except this black man, huh? He said to the man, “Get up and go. Your trustful action has been the making of you.”

In Jesus’ context it was a Samaritan. In Clarence Jordan’s context it was an African-American. In our context today it might well be a Muslim. In fact, substituting Muslim for Samaritan provides a good parallel. You see, the Samaritan not only represented a different nationality, the Samaritan also represented a different religious faith. And yet Jesus says he was saved, he was healed, he was made whole, simply for expressing gratitude, simply for having the right spirt expressed in grateful praise.   

I love the story news reporter and commentator Peter Arnett tells about the time he was in Israel, in a small town on the West Bank, when an explosion went off. The screams of the wounded seemed to be coming from all directions.

A man emerged from this chaos, running up to him holding a severely wounded little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Arnett to help him get her to a hospital. He cried, “Please Mister, help me. The Israeli troops have sealed off the area. No one can get in or out. But you are press. You can get through. Please, help me,” he begged.

So Arnett put them in his car, managed to get through the sealed area, and rushed the girl to a hospital in Jerusalem. The whole time he was hurtling down the road to the city, the man with the little girl in his arms was pleading for him to hurry, “Can you go faster. I’m losing her. I’m losing her,” he screamed.

When they finally got to the hospital, the girl was rushed to the operating room. Then the two men retreated to the waiting area, where they sat on a bench in silence, too exhausted to talk. After a short while, the doctor emerged from the operating room with the news that the girl had died.

The man collapsed in tears. Arnett went over and put his arm around him to comfort him. He said, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.” The moment he said, “I’ve never lost a child,” the man looked at Arnett in a startled manner. He said, “Oh Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was not my child. But, you know, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.” (Campolo, 121-22)

In the next paragraph of Jordan’s Cotton Patch version of Luke, Jordan writes, “Some of the church members asked him (Jesus) when the God Movement (kingdom of God) would get up steam. He answered them, “The God Movement doesn’t get up steam by appointing a committee to study it. Nor can you say, ‘It’s here’ or ‘It’s there,’ for evidences of the God Movement are all about you.”

Listen sisters and brothers, there is no more evidence of the God movement than when we treat all people with love and respect and compassion. I don’t care what that Israeli settler believed. When he took that little Palestinian girl in his arms he was being Jesus, he was acting in the Spirit of God. Who cares what he believed at that moment. What mattered is that he acted in the compassion of God. He was serving as an instrument of God. And that’s what matters now.

We are going to partake of communion together is just a minute. I hope this beautiful expression of community will help us to realize that we are not just one body in this place as disciples of Jesus, but we are also one body with everyone else. We share a common identity with everyone else – Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Syrians, Chinese, Koreans, it doesn’t matte – whatever religion or nationality. We all bear God’s image and we all are God’s children.

O God, Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for the liberation of many.” He told the disciples who were arguing about position and place that there place was to be servants of all. Help us to see how valuable each of us is no matter how different we may be and give us the compassion of Jesus that we might pursue the good of all people. Amen.