Monday, October 15, 2007

Pentecost 20 - Year C

NB: I got a wee bit 'o help from my wife and a kernel from Barbara Brown Taylor. - kgp

This passage is a week late, don’t you think? After all, today’s gospel reading is the traditional Thanksgiving lesson. It’s also the reading for Pentecost 20, year C. And since I didn’t get to preach last week, you get my Thanksgiving sermon today!

How have you been told this story of the Ten Lepers? Have you been told that there were 10 cleaned of skin disease, and 9 were ungrateful wretches and only one returned to say “Thanks” – so you better get some gratitude attitude? Is that what you’ve heard?

That’s what I heard. Year after year. Like guilt-stirring clockwork.

Well, I’m going to tell you to leave that interpretation behind. It’s not that I’m against thankfulness and gratitude. But this story isn’t about Jesus wagging his finger at us for all the thank you cards we forgot to write. It’s a bit deeper. At more wild and crazy than that.

Picture 10 lepers – 10 people with skin disease. Maybe Hansen’s disease, or maybe psoriasis, or ringworm, and anything that discolours the skin.

That’s how the book of Leviticus describes it in the bible. And it says how to deal with folks who have it. If you had this you were “unclean” and were expected to keep your distance from “clean” folks. You had to show you had a problem. “Who has this disease shall wear torn clothes,” the bible says, “and let the hair of their head hang loose, and they shall cover theirs lips and cry ‘Unclean! Unclean!” They shall remain unclean as long as they have the disease; they are unclean; they shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” (Lev. 13: 45-46)

If you ever did manage to become clean – and without proper nutrition and hygiene your chances were pretty slim – then you would go to the priests in Jerusalem, get them to look you over from head to toe, and every – I mean EVERYWHERE - in between. And if you were healed, you could offer a sacrifice, then try to resume your normal life – weeks to years after the initial discovery of the disease. But really, healing was as rare as a hippie in the oil patch.

So these lepers were outcast. All 10 of them. They probably lived in a pack so they could have some kind of human contact. But one of the 10 had a double-dose of outcastness. He was a Samaritan. Those half-believers who had a temple in Shechem, not Jerusalem. And they didn’t bother with tradition forms of worship. They made up their own. We assume that the other 9 were “fully” Jewish because Jesus sent them to the priests and they went. But it was only the Samaritan gatecrasher who returned to thank Jesus.

But this double-dosed outcast, this Samaritan is not actually supposed to come back at all. After they beg Jesus for mercy Jesus sends them to the temple priests. And they were made clean along the way.

But the Samaritan is actually disobeying Jesus by coming back to say thanks. He’s supposed to be on his was to the temple. But it seems he can’t help himself. He comes back and throws himself before Jesus – an act of worship to be seen by everyone – to thank him.

So this story is not the ungrateful 9 vs the thankful one; it’s the obedient 9 vs the disobedient spontaneous 1.

You and I, here in church: we’re the 9. We’re doing the right religious thing. We’ve come to this holy house to offer our thanks and praise, and there’s some guy in a big white dress here to do preside over the religious stuff. We try to do what God wants.

But you’ll note that Jesus doesn’t condemn the 9. After all they’re doing exactly what he asked them to do. But Jesus knows that there’s a difference between the 9 who are good, faithful, church folks, and the disobediently spontaneous one.

As the “nine”, how do we feel about the “one”? Are we angry at his rebellious faithfulness? Or do we excuse his spontaneity because he’s so interesting? Maybe a little bit of both?

Do you know anyone who’s really a “one”? Someone who’s living their lives on the edges of our faith, flaunting the expectations of what it means to be good, church folks.

Maybe we prefer “Ones” to the “nines.” In today’s first reading Naaman wanted the “One” – the prophet - to heal him. Instead he got the “nine.” The little slave girl.

Or are the “ones” a threat to our contented faith? Putting hard won religious expectations in peril?

When I preach, I try to use examples of the 9 rather than the “one.” Ones are too volatile. We can relate to the 9 much more easily. Ones make the faith too hard. You rarely get ones from me because they live unachievable faith for us “nines.”

You only get “ones” from me when they act like “nines.” For example: Mother Teresa. A “one.” I noticed that Lindsey has a picture of Mother Teresa on t’shirt with the caption, “Super Model” on it. Indeed, Mother Teresa is a super model for us to have as someone who lived her faith heroically, amidst the dying in the poorest parts of the world. Definitely, a “one.”

But, chances are you’re not going to abandon everything here in Lethbridge to devote your lives to serving the poorest of the poor half-way across the planet.

But lately we’ve been hearing that her diaries have surfaced, showing a woman suffering from tormenting doubt. We hear that her relationship with God was often strained or even estranged. That she shook her fist at who she thought was an absentee Saviour.

Some religious pundits are tearing their eyebrows out over this because they say that hearing about Mother Teresa’s doubt stains her memory and taints her legacy. It might stall the process of her becoming a Saint. We shouldn’t talk about the agonizing doubt of someone who lived so heroically faithful.

But I think her diaries enhance her memory and give her ministry greater credibility. Mother Teresa is no longer an image on a stained-glass window, more angelic than human. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to hear that a “One” like Mother Teresa shares some doubts of a “nine” like me.

Or I think of folks like Shane Clairbourne, the activist Christian who lives a radically simple life. When he goes to speaking events he asks to be billeted with families instead of being put up in a hotel. Because Jesus would never stay in a hotel.

Or he finds a group of homeless people and sleeps where they’re sleeping. I might have been able to do that 15 years ago when I was a wild-eyed romantic with dreams of becoming a “one.” But now I’ve settled into my “nine-ness.”

But when I listen to him speak, it’s not his radical gospel lifestyle that engages me, it’s his humble, everyday, spirit. And the distance between us shrinks.

Or the stories I like best about Martin Luther, the father of our church family, are not the ones where he stood up against a tyrannical imperial, Church. Where he preached an uncompromising gospel against a corrupt ecclesial hierarchy.

But the stories I like best are the one where his potty mouth got the best of him. Where he stayed in bed for days suffering from depression. Where he questioned how a pastor from the middle of nowhere could change the direction of the entire Church.

If “ones” like them can accomplish so much despite their doubts and frailties, than there’s hope for “nines” like you and me.

One thing I love about our church is that we are a church of “nines.” We are not a flashy, smiley, church that’s going to set the world on fire with a huge blast of God’s glory. That’s not who we are.

Instead, we set small bonfires of God’s love, here and there. We tend them. Stirring the embers, making sure they don’t blow out. All the while starting other bonfires down the street. And it’s a lot of work. It’s the work of the “nines.”

Jesus loved the “nines” as much as the “ones.” It’s the nines keep the church ship afloat. And have been for 2000 years. We are the ones doing the hard, day-to-day grunt work of the kingdom that God wants us to do. We may encounter moments of “One-ness” but, it’s our “nineness” that God is interested in. Because that is who we are. And God uses us just as powerfully as God uses the “ones.”

For me, it wasn’t until I became comfortable in my “nine-ness” that ministry became a delight. It wasn’t until I stopped thinking I had to be some superhero of the faith, that God showed me the joy of ministry that happens under the radar screen, when nobody’s paying attention.

It’s in that man’s garage, that women’s office, that parking lot conversation where the nines do their best work.

So, I’m guessing that the nine who didn’t come back weren’t any less gratesful than the one who did. They just showed their gratitude by doing what Jesus asked them to do.

And for us, that sounds like a good start.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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