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.


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