Monthly Archives: October 2010

a wretch like me: Luke 18:9-14

You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name.

Anyone who has spent time in a 12-step program knows that the path of recovery is signed with slogans and pithy pieces of advice, most of which would be good words for any of us to live by. One day at a time. Easy does it. Live and let live. Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle. And my personal favorite: don’t compare someone else’s outsides to your insides. Or, simply, identify, don’t compare. In other words, don’t assume that because someone you see at an AA meeting looks older than you, or younger, or poorer, or more successful, or healthier, or more beaten down by addiction than you, that you are any more or less in need of healing and hope than that person. And vice versa. The truth behind those little sayings is that every one of us, regardless of our particular struggle or lack thereof, longs to be loved by God. Each of us longs to know that we are loved, and to know that we have a place in God’s creation. This is true whether that longing takes us to a twelve-step group or a spiritual director or a mental hospital or a church.

Today’s gospel is about someone who is doing a lot of comparing, rather than identifying. We tend to read this story as being about a bad person and a good person, but, like the rest of life, it’s not that simple.

Pharisees were not bad people. In fact, one could argue that they were particularly good. They were incredibly faithful to their tradition, and deeply steeped in Hebrew Scripture. They held a liberal interpretation of scripture and, rather like the Benedictine reformers in the middle ages, strived to make Jewish spiritual practices available to everyone, not just religious professionals.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were not considered good, humble people by anyone. They were partners with the Romans, whom everyone hated, and were associated with corruption and greed. Jesus did not hang around them because they were poor and defenseless but because everyone else hated them. They were paid by the Romans to collect taxes at a set rate, but given permission to collect any amount of tax they wanted, by any means they had, and keep the difference between the going rate and whatever they were able to extort. The tax collector in today’s gospel wasn’t kidding when he said “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The very nature of their work made them spiritually wretched.

I recently had a conversation with someone about the word “wretch,” and how some people are uncomfortable using that word to describe themselves. As in, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Do you ever feel like a wretch? Or have you ever had a day in which everything was just wretched? I have days like that, days when I forget important tasks, or yell at my kid, or make bad choices around things like food or caffeine or time. Do you have days like that?

If we are uncomfortable with our own wretchedness, then we spend a lot of emotional and spiritual energy comparing ourselves to people who we think might be more or less wretched than us, defending ourselves against the knowledge of our own wretchedness. Which is too bad, because it is in that knowledge, in that coming face-to-face with our inner wretch, that God intervenes.

This is why we have stories about tax collectors who are despised and rejected, experiencing the grace of God.

But what about the Pharisee? Pharisees were vulnerable to getting caught up in their own goodness, in their own capacity to follow the rules exactly as written and never to deviate. Clergy, while not always meticulous in the way that Pharisees were, are also particularly vulnerable to getting caught up in our own goodness, in part because there are still people out there who expect us to be better people than anyone else.  No one expects us to swear or park illegally or ever feel jealous or selfish or angry. We get caught up in expectations, our own and others,’ that make us want to hide our vulnerabilities, our flaws, and our wretchedness from the people all around us, from ourselves, and from God. I’m not the only one who does this, right? When we do this, we miss out on God’s grace. This isn’t just a pitfall of being a clergy person. I think it’s a pitfall of being human and longing for God.

There is a wonderful song from the Church of the Beloved in Seattle, called “Given.” We sang it last week at the Worship Lab. Part of the refrain is “our gift is not what we can do but who we are.”

We do not become a gift to God and to the world after we get our act together—we are a gift now. That is why in this week’s gospel we don’t get a story about the tax collector’s change in behavior. (Come back next week.) The tax collector doesn’t even say anything to promise repentance or restitution, and yet still he goes home justified, made right with God.

Every Sunday, when we say the prayer of confession, we are living as the spiritual descendents of the tax collector. Every time we say “most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word, and deed,” we are sharing our wretchedness and opening ourselves up to God’s grace. We say it together, out loud, week after week because wretchedness is an equal opportunity experience, and God’s grace, God’s extravagant love, comes to each of us, all of us.

So, what do we do with all this grace? What is the connection between this parable and being agents of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation and transformation in the world?

I recently heard someone say that as a response to today’s gospel we should all have bumper stickers on our cars that say: “God loves you, so stop being a jerk.”

That’s part of it.

And there are other ways to live in God’s grace. One is to come to the table, to share in broken bread as a sign of Christ’s broken body and our own brokenness, and as a promise of the redemption of the whole world. I like to think of church as a training ground for God’s agents. Our training starts at this table and continues in our fellowship and in how we live our lives when we leave this place. How will we love the wretches like us?

O Lord, you are in the midst of us and we are called by your name.

 

Your Faith Has Made You Well

 

Nobody wants to be in pain.  Nobody wants to feel how dark and hard the world can be.
We have lost too many beautiful children this past month. Living as outcasts in a cruel world, the pain was too much for them. It can hurt to live in this world.

But the other options are worse. Leaving, or going numb. Very few of us leave the way Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas and Raymond Chase did. I think most of us just get a little or a lot numb.

Leprosy is a disease of the nervous system that keeps you from feeling pain. Both the old and new testament readings this morning are stories of people suffering the devastating effects of numbness.

Namaan travels all the way to see Elisha and Elisha won’t even come see him, he sends a messenger out. And Namaan doesn’t want to listen to the messenger. He has such strong expectations of what God’s healing love is going to look like that he almost walks away from chance to be whole again.

Thankfully, none of us are like that.

The lepers in the gospel are sitting across the street and they call to Jesus and he calls back. The nine are made clean through obedience but the tenth is saved though gratitude.
All through Luke’s gospel this late summer we have been hearing stories about how we have to turn our backs on everything we thought we wanted.

Family, security, safety, inclusion– all those things can’t come between us and Jesus.

And then this morning we have this gorgeous image of an amazing reunion, that doesn’t happen. This is the hardest one for me to wrap my mind around- this is worse than hate your mother, or let the dead bury their own dead.

According to Leviticus- (45-46) “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt,d cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.”
Who knows how long this morning’s leper has been living like this.

Can you imagine?

He must have had a family. He had a life before this, but after contracting leprosy he has lost everything. No more contact, no more worship. Totally cut off.

So he finds these nine friends. Fellow lepers. And they sit by the side of the road all day talking about the lives they used to have, and occasionally calling out to passersby “unclean!” This is like the untouchable caste in India except you can get flung into it without warning. And the reason for much of your isolation is that the priests are convinced that since you have leprosy God has judged you and your sins are beyond forgiveness.
So there he sits. Alone, abandoned, cut off from everyone and everything he ever loved, in the depths of inadequacy.

Then here comes Jesus.

Have mercy on us they all cry. no really Have Mercy!!
And he does.
“Go”, says Jesus, “to the priests. show your selves.”
be part of community again.
“go”
and they do.
As they are on their way, maybe one notices first, then another, “my hand is whole again”, looking at his friend whose face has become whole and beautiful –
“as they walked they were made whole.” They were cleansed.
Can you imagine? Now their whole world is countable footsteps away from being restored. Everything they had lost will soon be found.

They can worship again, they can hug their children again. They can come back into community life. They must have started running on their now strong legs
–and then one of them stops. The others turn and look at him. “what is it?”

His feet feel heavy.
They are on their way back to the most amazing reunion of their lives and he is turning back. There it is, the life he has dreamed of night after lonely night waiting for him. The world of friends and family. The world that was ripped away from him by a cruel and devastating disease.
He must have wept a little turning his back on the city, deciding to leave voluntarily what had just been returned to him before he even had a chance to taste it again.
but as he starts walking back, it must be a new man. This is wholeness, this is cleanness.
It is not for the old life. This is a life so transformed by gratitude that it becomes unrecognizable.
Jesus says as much to him: your faith has made you well.
The nine that don’t came back are fine, they are the nine unlost coins, the ninety nine unlost sheep, the older brother. Their bodies were returned to a state of health. And they very well may have lived long and comfortable lives.

Oh, but that one who came back. What a life he must have led. Healed and free in a way most of us can only dream of. He had turned his back and walked away from everything he though he wanted and ran straight into the arms of love.
He flings himself at the feet of Love.

“Get up.” says Jesus.
“your faith has made you well. “

We get to rejoice in the one who comes back. Over and over. And it’s not always fair and it doesn’t always make sense, especially when the nine did what they were supposed to do.

“Go to the priest” says Jesus and they went.
Jesus is lord of special cases.

“Your faith has made you well.” This is not a faith of intellectual assent. This is not a faith that needed ecumenical councils to clarify it. Or books of theology to understand it-
this is a faith strong enough to turn your feet away from home and head back out. Back away from your safety. This is the kind of faith that can make you well.

He is now well enough to be hurt again.

This is the kind of faith that can make us well. This is a faith that lets us feel pain again.
This is a faith that will restore our ability to weep for Tyler, Asher, Seth, Billy, Raymond and all who cannot weep for themselves. This is a faith that will make us tender and vulnerable.

Thank you.

Kerlin Richter,
St. David’s October 10, 2010

God’s Claim

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers….put your trust in the Lord and do good.

These words are from today’s psalm, and they’re repeated in several places, almost as a mini-refrain: do not fret yourself. And yet, at first listen our lessons today give us plenty to fret about, especially the gospel. All this talk about worth and worthlessness, being undeserving and unworthy…is this the way God feels about us? Is this the God we came to worship this morning?

Before we even get to the gospel, the language of the Collect might press buttons for some of us, with its reference to more than we deserve and those things for which we are not worthy to ask. This language is what gives Christianity a bad name, right?

And the gospel….I’m not even ready to go there. Worthless slaves? Really?

If we weren’t already a bit annoyed at God, the language in today’s gospel is enough to make us want to rail at God like the prophet Habbakuk:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

Who was this Habbakuk? We don’t know much about him, other than that he probably wrote 600 years before the birth of Christ, during the time when the people of Israel were living in exile, held captive in Babylon. The injustice and violence he experienced is the same injustice and violence lived out in every generation by small colonized nations at the hands of their oppressors.

The book of Habbakuk begins with an announcement of an oracle: The oracle that the prophet saw. An oracle is usually a message from God to a prophet. But instead of a long pronouncement of God’s intentions, this oracle begins with the prophet entering into a conversation with God, if you could call it a conversation:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?

God doesn’t say much. Habbakuk goes on and on, articulating the age-old theological question: if God is in charge of the world, why is there injustice? If God is in charge, the prophet asks, why are we surrounded by destruction, violence, strife, and wickedness?

Even we who live comfortably in large, powerful nations experience violence and strife in our own communities, often in our own families. We may not blame God for the bad things that happen to us, but we would certainly like to know that God is listening to us and that God has a plan.

When I was a tortured adolescent, I was like Habbakuk, sitting at my watchpost, waiting for an answer to whatever injustice or longing or strife I was experiencing at the time. I’m not sure I would’ve understood the answer Habbakuk gets as he paces back and forth across the ramparts. When he finally gives God a chance to speak, here is what he hears: The righteous live by faith.

The righteous live by faith. Perhaps it is this living by faith, having our faith infuse all of our lives, our being and our doing, that the apostles long for when they say to Jesus “increase our faith!” Help us understand your ways in the world. Help us live them. Jesus has just taught them the importance of forgiveness in the community of disciples. He has just said “If someone sins against you seven times … you must forgive.” (In case you’re wondering, it’s Matthew who says seventy times seven, but the principle is the same.)

It is in response to this teaching about the importance of forgiveness that the apostles cry out: increase our faith! Their longing is to have such faith that their ability to forgive those who have hurt them comes automatically. Don’t we all long for the same thing? Don’t you ever wish you could just do the right thing and say the right thing without even thinking? Imagine if each of us were able to live out every one of Jesus’ teachings as though we were just doing our job as disciples, just doing what we ought to have done! Forget mulberry bushes thrown into the sea….If everyone who claimed to be Jesus’ disciple lived out all of his teachings around forgiveness, peacemaking, generosity, and love, lived out those teachings not because we’re special but because we’re just doing our jobs, the kingdom would be here indeed.

When we focus on Jesus’ words about being worthless slaves, we miss the point of the gospel words that follow: “We have done only what we ought to have done.”

What Jesus longs for in his disciples is the kind of faith that is like breathing out and breathing in, the kind of faith that gives birth to forgiveness, and justice, and peace. Jesus longs for this in us not because we are especially good or especially worthy but because this is God’s claim on us, to be about the work of the kingdom.

I’d like to close with a poem by Kathleen Norris. It’s called “Goodness.”

Goodness

Despite our good deeds,
the chatter
of our best intentions,
our many kindnesses,
God is at work
in us, close
to the bone,
past the sinews
of our virtues, to the marrow
we cannot feel,
the sudden, helpless tears
when we know what we are,
and can go on.

~ Kathleen Norris, from Journey

As we go on in our kingdom journey, let us pray that we be given the grace to do God’s work and to live God’s love.