Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C] - October 20, 2013 (Luke 18:1-8 and Psalm 121)

Many people have been rather moved this week by this story out of Florida about the fifteen-year-old foster child who went to church last Sunday to appeal for a family to adopt him. Davion Only was essentially orphaned at birth, the identity of his father never known and his mother in prison on drug charges. After he got word that she died a couple of years ago, Davion gave up on his hope that she’d ever come rescue him and raise him has her child. Yet even after years of being bounced around in the state foster care system he did not give up his hope that he’d be adopted by some family, somewhere, who would love him forever and make him feel like he mattered. He cleaned up his act, brought his grades up at school, dropped his weight. After hearing somewhere that God might be able to help, last Sunday, at Davion’s request, his case worker got him all dressed up and took him to a local church. After the sermon, the pastor handed him the microphone and Davion made his pitch. “I’ll take anyone,” he said, “old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple, I don’t care. I know God hasn’t given up on me. So I’m not giving up either.”

Apparently people heard his plea: the adoption agency handling his case received over 10,000 offers to adopt Davion this week. Indeed, it appears Davion has sparked an interest in adoption in general. And it also looks like there will be a happy ending for him, although he can’t give up praying and hoping just yet. Mandatory wait periods and red tape mean that even if a family match is made immediately, it’ll still be months before they actually receive him.

Davion’s story makes me think of all of those who come to church as often as they can mainly to ask God for something that they need. Some of you people are here, perhaps, today, silently but persistently praying for vindication in some form. Pray on. There is something especially compelling, I think, about the pleas of Davion, the orphan, that is echoed in the parable today about the widow and the unjust judge. Both are stories of small, vulnerable, easily exploited people with the odds against them, going up against a system that seems cold, unfeeling, unable or unwilling to handle their needs. Plea after plea goes unanswered. It would become very easy to give up hope.

In the parable of the widow, Jesus sets up a classic, if not extreme, David-versus-Goliath scenario here. In ancient middle-eastern Society, widows were about as low on the totem pole as you could go. They had few rights and even fewer people to speak or advocate for their needs. They were often left to fend for themselves, especially if none of their late husband’s brothers wanted to take them in marriage so they'd have a place to live. That’s actually what the local judges and magistrates were for—to make sure these people didn’t completely fall through the cracks—but in the parable Jesus tells, even the system isn’t going to work in her favor. This widow has a dud judge. He cares neither what God nor other people think about him!

Yet the widow comes constantly. Maybe even every day. Sits in the outer office and thumbs through all the same magazines, asks the lady behind the glass window to put her on his daily planner. She begs and pleads and cries for attention, and he keeps turning a deaf ear, asking his assistant to erase all his voice mails each day, shuffling the paperwork around on his desk. It’s the utter nobody against The Man, the powerless weakling versus the colossal overlord. In any other situation, she wouldn’t have stood a chance. However, remember that Jesus’ is telling this parable. And, in his version of the story what little tiny power she does have at her disposal gives her victory. The judge finally realizes that she has the power to embarrass him if he doesn’t do something about what she wants. And so he relents.

Lots of parables are illustrations of what God is like, but this one is an extreme example of what God is not like. Jesus wants his disciples to know that God is absolutely not like that unjust, unfeeling judge who only listens when he realizes he is being shamed into doing so, like prayer is a competition of mental strength. Our Father in heaven, by contrast, responds quickly to those who pray for justice because they are his chosen ones, his beloved. I think Davion gets this. In fact, many people who are powerless, at the bottom of society seem to get this naturally, that God is still looking out for them in spite of their circumstances. Such faith is inspiring.

Yes, it is inspiring, but Jesus is telling his disciples this parable not so much because he wants them to have the type of faith that will take all their private needs and desires to God in prayer. While God certainly hears and cares about the prayers of our hearts, the things that we privately struggle and wrestle with, this parable is more about our collective struggle as workers in God’s kingdom. This parable is about inspiring us to continue in our Jesus-led effort to embody his love in our relationships and to give witness to his power. Jesus wants to build up the disciples’ faith and assure them that God will ultimately be victorious over the evil in the world. Despite what they—and we—observe regarding the brokenness of creation, they should still have confidence that God’s power is devoted toward the triumph of right, that, as Dr. Martin Luther King once said to inspire those in his movement in this country, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In fact, Jesus tells this parable immediately following a considerably blunt sermon about the approach of God’s kingdom and the Son of Man, the term Jesus uses to refer to himself in his second coming. He has a concern: will the opposition to his kingdom, though temporary, be too much for his disciples’ faith? Will the movement of compassion and righteousness he has begun keep going? Will its momentum stop because its opponents in the world—the opponents that lie even in our own hearts—are too fierce and worrisome?

Jesus’ concern has an edge to it: it causes me to ask whether my prayers and my immediate desires are really lined up with this long arc of justice that God has in mind or are they very immediate and personal just to me. God certainly hears both--and cares about both-- but the point about God’s utter faithfulness that is being made in this parable  is about those ultimate kingdom goals. God focuses us on the big picture…not just me and my small view on it.

The point when I finally began understanding the force of this parable—that edge where it asks me to pay mind to what I’m praying for within God’s big picture—was during my internship year in Cairo, Egypt. One of my duties at my internship parish there involved teaching music to the refugee children. The church I served ran the only school that was open to Sudanese and Somali refugee children in Egypt. Only native-born Egyptians are allowed to attend state schools in Egypt, so refugees have no formal way to educate their children.

I’m not much of a musician or a teacher, but I used old camp songs to teach and reinforce English-vocabulary with them. One of the songs I taught them was based on the psalm for today, Psalm 121

I lift my eyes up, up to the mountains
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from you, Maker of heaven, Creator of the earth.


One little girl, for example kept mispronouncing “Creator.” She’d say, “Cree-tor.” I would stop the song and explain what Creator meant and how to say it, how it was another word for our God. Well, a little farther into the song we eventually got to a line that contained the word “rescue”:


So I will wait for you
To come and rescue me
To come and give me life.


I thought: that might be kind of a hard word for this age, so I stopped and tried to explain the definition of rescue. The same little girl looked right back at me. “Oh, Pastor Phillip,” she said. “We know what ‘rescue’ means. We know rescue. We’re refugees. My people have been rescued from our country. We were rescued by this church.” Who was I to explain to them the meaning of rescue?

refugee children at St. Andrew's Church, Cairo, 2002
You see, the refugees I worked among were like the widow. They spent years relentlessly pounding on the gates of the United Nations, relentlessly pounding on the doors of all the American or Canadian embassies…all the powers-that-be who often refuse to recognize them as people with rights, who turn a deaf ear to their pleas and hopes for a better life. They know rescue. And although they’ve been turned down again and again and again, I don’t think I’ve ever met a group of people who, in spite of their circumstances, were more confident in the love and long-suffering care of their Creator and that that Creator’s kingdom was on its way. They had more faith in one little finger than I did in my whole body! The Spirit had given them the ability to distinguish their most basic personal and political needs tangled up, as they were, in a corrupt and broken system that worked against them from the kingdom of God that they knew was working for them.  While they pounded away at the doors of all kinds of dud judges, they never ceased in praying to God for vindication…and they were confident that ultimately they would persevere...that though things look very bleak on the afternoon of Good Friday, Easter morning will surely dawn.

It is in this same confidence that you undertake your own Easter efforts, hosting folks for CARITAS, serving the community through HHOPE, making meals for those in the congregation who are grieving, persisting in your personal efforts of peace and reconciliation in your relationships. Perhaps most significantly, in spite of your hurt and your worry you gather for worship with our brothers and sisters as often as you can, with a heart like that of Davion Only, crying out with each other in praise and thanksgiving that our Heavenly Father has not left us orphaned.

We worship and we wait and we cast our prayers to Him, in the end knowing that justice will be in our favor—that God will come through with 10,000 opportunities to love and serve and show our faith in the meantime.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C] - October 13, 2013 (Luke 17:11-19)

There is a Peanuts cartoon which features part of an ongoing conversation between Charlie Brown and his sassy younger sister Sally about the subject of writing “Thank You” notes for her Christmas presents. At one point Sally says to Charlie Brown, who is staring in the other direction at the TV, “Gramma is mad at me. She said it’s inexcusable to be six weeks late with a ‘Thank you’ note. I didn’t think six weeks was that long to a grandmother.”

What is your window of time? How quickly do you wait to receive an expression of thanks? After reading this morning’s gospel story about the ten lepers, one might reach the conclusion that, for Jesus, six weeks is way too long. Ten lepers approach him while he’s on the road to Jerusalem and cry out for mercy. Typically Jesus touches people in order to heal them, but in this instance all he does is “see” them. He then directs them to the priests, who have the authority to declare them formally clean and rid them of their outcast status. They all go running off, but on the way, one of them realizes he has already been healed and turns around to thank Jesus.

In the reaction that this provokes from Jesus we see a side of him we don’t usually see: a bit of disgruntlement, almost annoyance. “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?” It’s as if those other nine—who, mind you, were doing exactly as he told them to do—didn’t get their thank you notes in the mail quickly enough. Maybe they thought they had a six-week time frame to work with. Maybe they didn’t realize they were healed as quickly as the one did. Whatever the case, the focus of the entire episode shifts from the healing, which was miraculous in and of itself, to the reaction of this one lone Samaritan…this one lone Samaritan who notices that he is already healed and wheels back around to respond to the person who did the healing.

What that one lone Samaritan does as he comes back to Jesus is more significant when we take a closer look. He does not just come back to drop a quick “Thank you” note like Sally might try to get by with. This guy goes a little over the top. To begin with, he walks back to Jesus shouting at the top of his lungs. As a leper, he would have been used to shouting because those with skin diseases thought to be contagious had to walk around shouting “I’m unclean!” in order to warn people away. But as he returns to Jesus, the man is no longer shouting about his uncleanliness. He’s shouting about God.

When I was on staff at a summer camp during college, one of our camp pastors would occasionally lead the Lord’s Prayer during worship by having us start out a whisper and then gradually getting louder with each line so by the time we were on the final line—“for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, FOREVER AND EVER…AMEN!”—we were shouting at the top of our lungs. At first I thought their idea to pray like that was a little strange, but once we began doing it, I found it kind of moving. It made me concentrate on the words a little more than I usually do and that resounding crescendo declaring God’s glory was powerful. But other than that instance, I was pretty sure I’d never shouted during worship.

It wasn’t until several years later that I learned that Lutherans think they shout in worship all the time. This is a Lutheran shout: “Amen” (unless you’re Matt Greenshields). However, each time I hear a baby or child make a loud noise during worship I’ve learned to think about it in terms of loud praise, as if they’re setting some example for the rest of us even if they don’t realize it.

The Samaritan comes back shouting praise to God for his healing and as soon as he gets to Jesus he does something even more strange to our sensibilities: he literally falls down on his face to thank Jesus. This is something else we don’t do in worship very often, either. We at Epiphany get close to it, though, when we kneel at the altar for communion. The ancient act of worshipping someone with your whole body, of showing them great honor and respect and placing yourself in a position of vulnerability relative to them, involved lying prostrate on the ground in front of them. Here, in the middle of the road to Jerusalem, this man lies down in the dust and the mud to give thanks to Jesus. That, too, seems a little over the top. The fact that a Samaritan—an essential outsider to Israel’s culture—would stoop to do this is even more surprising.

At first glance, this episode with the one lone Samaritan leper seems like nothing more than a lesson about thankfulness. The man sees that he is healed—meaning he realizes that he is transformed—and he naturally responds to give thanks. Good enough. But if we look a little deeper, we find a complete pattern or template for all worship—indeed for all our encounters with the living God.

Each week in our confirmation classes we address one or two questions that the confirmands have about faith and church. This week we dealt with two great, challenging questions. One student asked, “Why do we do that same routine every Sunday in church?” I’m sure I gave a long-winded answer about liturgy and Lutheran tradition that didn’t make any sense. What I could have said was that we’re just doing what the leper did. Our worship begins by asking Jesus to look at us with mercy, to recognize us in our helplessness. Whether we’re using the confession and forgiveness or singing “Lord, have mercy” that we use in Lent, or singing an entrance hymn that address God as our master in some way, we begin like the lepers do. We start by acknowledging our weakness and God’s greatness by saying out loud, “Lord, we bring nothing to you except our absolute need for your grace.”

After that, God’s Word does the healing. We move into listening to God’s grace in the Scriptures and, if I haven’t put you to sleep by that point, in the preaching. And here’s an important thing to consider: our healing, our being made new is not always readily apparent. Sometimes it is instantaneous and we realize it right then and there, but often it takes a while for the effect of this healing to sink in. Nevertheless, we are given time to respond, like the leper, in praise and thanksgiving. We do this, in part, by saying one of the church’s creeds as a statement of faith. We offer prayers of the assembly, including the names of those in our midst that are in need of healing. We give our offerings. And we share the Lord’s Supper.

Lastly, we are dismissed, just like the Samaritan leper. Dismissed to serve: that’s the last part of our “routine” each week. Just as Jesus tells the man to get up and go on his way because his faith has made him well, we are likewise told to Go in peace and serve the Lord. One final hymn helps set the tone for that, if it’s chosen thoughtfully. Our worship is based on nothing more and nothing less than what that one foreigner does. Indeed, all of our encounters with the risen and healing One really bear this pattern, especially when the Spirit moves us to realize that his grace as transformed us.

Interestingly, the other question asked by one of the confirmands this week was, “If people do not attend church services every week, are they going to hell?” Well, as a matter of fact, we learn to take attendance at seminary, too. In all honesty, my thought as I heard this question was, “My God, what message have I been sending?!” This certainty bears repeating: when we experience the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we come to understand there’s nothing we can do or not do that gains us eternal favor with God. Just as Jesus tells the leper, it is our faith, not our actions, that saves us. The other nine were certainly healed; Jesus didn’t take that away from them. So going to church all the time isn’t like getting our ticket stamped for heaven. 
However, there is something saving about a faith that returns to thank God, about acknowledging not just our own sinfulness, but also God’s glory. The story of the leper teaches us that our new life in Christ is not fully complete until we have somehow responded to God in praise and thanksgiving, until that shouting and crying we do comes full circle. Whereas once we shouted for mercy and love, now we have the opportunity to shout for praise and thanksgiving. I suppose that doesn’t have to happen at a church service, and I suppose that doesn’t have to happen every week. But when it does occur, it certainly helps us grow in faith.

I heard seminary professor and writer Dr. Mark Allen Powell speak one time about his own experience of growing up and attending worship with his family. He explained that when his mother would pile them all into the car on Sunday morning and they’d ask why they were essentially stopped what they were doing, she’s respond with the same answer, over and over: “because Jesus is worthy of our praise.” Sometimes she’d add, “six days a week God is good to us. And on Sundays we give thanks.”

Come to think of it, her response was really that of the leper’s. At its core, worship has less to do with being blessed by God or needing to be fed or getting to see the rest of God’s children and more to do with providing an outlet for us to respond to what God has already done. We need no other reason to be here other than Jesus is worthy of our praise and thanksgiving. On this day he overcame death and the grave. He healed us and continues to heal us with that message more than we ever will understand in this life. We have been called out of our exile and given forgiveness and hope. God has washed us in his grace and set us free and when we return to shout out or just use our Lutheran low voices this salvation really starts to take root in us.    When we think about all this, when we look down at ourselves, like the leper, and see the changes that take place in us, we realize the question quickly becomes less and less about how much we have to come worship…or how long a time frame is acceptable for returning thanks. Is it six weeks? Is every seventh day even often enough?

Rather, like the leper on that dusty road we realize the question is more like why in the world would we want to stay away? When we look at the ways God loves us, FOREVER AND EVER, AMEN!—how in the world could we ever hold back?

Our faith has saved us.

With that, we may go on our way.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.