Friday, October 22, 2010

Initial Thougts on No One Knowing

Due to the fact that there are several guest preachers over the next few weeks, my next preaching date is November 28-29. The texts for that day are from the Revised Common Lectionary.

My thoughts are still really disjointed on the readings. Hopefully the commentaries will help me develop a bit of coherence. Some of my initial reflections will definitely need to be thought through a little more.

All the readings have undertones of the End of Days and/or the judgment that comes with them. This is definitely a little tricky since judgment is often seen as punishment rather than something good to be prayed and hoped for.

The Gospel lesson does seem to have some good news here--no one knows the day or hour. Therefore, rather than worrying about when exactly Jesus will come again, we can worry about living our lives as best we can.

Advent begins. While we prepare to celebrate Christmas and New Year's--and maybe recover from Thanksgiving--we have to remember that the church's new year or cycle has already begun. How do we reconcile the sacred and secular of our lives?

There is also the theme of readiness. How do we get ready for the coming of the Son of Man?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sermon October 9-10

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; and Luke 17:11-19

A couple of canoers were traveling down the Pembina River in Manitoba, Canada. After a few hours, they fell into just watching the scenery pass them by…trees… flowers…the occasional turtle… Eventually, they came upon some people picking berries. One of the canoers looked up and, realizing what had happened, shouted to them, “Oh no! Are we in the United States?”

The canoers, in fact, had unintentionally crossed the 49th parallel—that invisible line that separates Canada from the United States—and ended up near Walhalla, North Dakota. This might sound like something that should have happened back in the pioneer days of the 1800s. Actually, it was around the mid-1990s. The landscape simply hadn’t changed much from the river’s point of view, and the latitude line wasn’t marked with a major fence or signpost. It was simply an arbitrary point—like the difference between walking through Nebraska or Iowa—lots of corn and fields. Without those human-made signposts, not much would distinguish the two.
This notion speaks very clearly to our lessons for this week. Throughout the readings, boundaries are being crossed, and eventually, no one knows who is ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ of them. Our reading from 2 Kings is particularly complex with these outsider/insider relationships. We encounter so many social implications that there is not really a distinct line to separate for sure who is in or out at any point in the text.

Here we have Naaman, a commander of the Aramean army, which would make him an insider there, whom God has given victory, making him even more of an insider to the Biblical audience. However, he has leprosy, a disease which automatically makes him a social outsider anywhere. The army captures an Israelite girl and has her work for Naaman’s wife, so she would be a double outsider there—a female and a foreigner in Aram. But then we find out that she knows of a prophet in Israel who could cure Naaman, which makes her an insider with her privileged and possibly life-saving knowledge. Naaman goes to Israel, where he would be an outsider, with a letter and some treasure from the king of Aram, indicating his superior status as an insider. The king of Israel is really upset, thinking the more powerful kingdom of Aram is picking a fight with him, to which he is a powerless outsider. However, Elisha steps in, an insider for sure, and has Naaman sent to him. Naaman arrives in all sorts of grandeur—chariot, servants, etc—but Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him. Naaman is treated as an outsider where he thinks he should be an insider, which makes him mad, and he leaves. His servants, outsiders, advise him to listen to the prophet. He finally does, recognizing his outsider position, and is made well. He returns to acknowledge Elisha as a prophet and God as the One true God.

Whew. Did anyone follow that? Just when we think we have it figured out, the story takes a strange turn and shows us that we’re clearly wrong. That’s perhaps not so different from our world today. At church, I talk to this person and this person, and at work or school, it’s this person and this person—but not that person. Where do we draw lines? What do we value? What do we think we have figured out?

Naaman thought he had it figured out. He brought a letter from the King of Aram and a bit of treasure. Money and political power. However, it is going to take more than money to heal him of his condition. He is going to have to surrender his pride and his beliefs about ethnic and social boundaries.

Who is important in this text? Naaman and Elisha are the named characters, so that seems pretty obvious. What about the little girl who started it all…simply by expressing her faith? A female, a double outsider, is practically a non-person in this ancient time and place. If she had never voiced her belief in God and the truth that there was a prophet in Israel, Naaman would not have even known where to turn to be healed. He would likely have ended up a faceless, nameless leper swept into the void of history and time. However, because of this one true message of faith, this little Israelite maid changes the lives of many who hear her words—Naaman, his family, the Arameans under his command, and even us today.

It’s like that with the lepers in the gospel text as well. Ten are healed by Jesus, but only one recognizes the true miracle and returns to thank the source of the gift, of all gifts, in fact. This is another double outsider, a Samaritan and a leper, and this non-person of society sees the true message and changes our lives as we hear the story.

Who are the people we would usually ignore? Who are the outsiders or non-persons in our society? In our lives? Who do we hesitate to greet or welcome as an honored person and fail to recognize as a Child of God? How do we let go of our discomfort and let others in?

Naaman lets go of his hold on the social norms by listening to his servants. His wife demonstrates wisdom by letting go of her superior household status to listen to the Israelite maid. Naaman himself is an outsider in Israel—a foreigner—who acknowledges Elisha as a true prophet of the One God and is healed. Jesus has a reputation for overturning social norms and does so once again here—he includes the Samaritan as one of the lepers who is healed.

Faith is not just for one select group of people…as we’ve studied and grown as a faith community throughout the centuries of our history, we’ve begun to understand more fully what that means. In church ministry we’ve recently begun to break down boundaries of age, gender, race, political leanings, and ethnicity to open ourselves to and incorporate more and more of God’s people—allowing these people to serve as the Spirit moves and calls them. This is something to really celebrate. However, it makes us ask the question what’s been stopping us from going further? Maybe, like Naaman, we’re really the outsiders thinking we should be treated as insiders. Perhaps, like the lepers, we’re so stuck on being insiders and following the expectations of our usual routine that we miss the bigger picture.

The boundaries we still have—even the ones we’ve broken down, are human boundaries. God’s love does not recognize them. God heals all—Naaman, the foreigner. Jesus heals all—including the Samaritan. The stories show us that perhaps sometimes the outsider—the one to whom we would say “you don’t really need to come in,”—has the greater sense of gratitude and the purer heart for faith and worship. The rest of the people in the stories aren’t wrong, necessarily, the lepers do what Jesus tells them to by going to the priest, the kings and those in Israel aren’t criticized for not knowing, but it is the outsiders who are lifted up as going the extra mile, so to speak. They recognize the miracle and are so moved that they return to say “thank you” for the gift.

Who are the outsiders still in our society? Where are we failing to recognize the Spirit in them and the witness they bring? How do we reinforce the boundaries society has set up for us—political borders, racial discrimination, gender roles? Considering a simple question can test for this—When do ‘we’ use the word ‘they’? We can’t ignore differences, every bit of us is part of who we are. For example, I am a blue-eyed, brown-haired, left-handed American woman from North Dakota with ethnic roots in Germany, Norway, and Holland. Chances are, you are not, but who you are and who I am is informed and completed partly by these traits and should be celebrated. I have something unique to offer because of them, and so do you. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the differences that give the world such wonderful variety. However, we can dissolve the boundaries society would have us create based on those differences.

Our Psalm today ends with this verse, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.” Who may practice their reverence for God? Who has a good understanding if they practice it? Israelite or foreigner? Men or women? ALL. All those who practice it have a good understanding. There is no specific select group of people who are ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Once we start to recognize that, we might begin to see our church, our faith community, less like a building with walls and more like that river in Canada—the one where you can’t tell where that boundary line actually is—because it isn’t really there except in our minds.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those—ALL those—who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.” AMEN.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More Thoughts for This Weekend

In researching 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15, I found that most of the commentaries did address, at least to some degree, the outsider/insider dynamic at work here. Some reflections I found particularly intriguing:

“When we read the Bible carefully we notice how often it features prominent outsiders. This inclusion of outsiders, Spina argues, is ‘neither incidental nor haphazard in the biblical witness.’ These outsider stories often include a significant plot reversal in which the ostensible insider is cast in a negative light and the outsider is portrayed as superior in virtue or faith. In his book Spina considers seven of these stories where the outsider is mainlined and the insider is marginalized — Esau... Jonah, Ruth (a resident alien who remarries a Hebrew), the woman at the well in John 4 who had married five times, and then the lectionary passage for this week about Naaman in 2 Kings 5.
“...‘No outcasts,’ writes Garry Wills in What Jesus Meant, ‘were cast out far enough in Jesus' world to make him shun them — not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?’ Instead of defining other people as beyond the pale of God's love, we'd do better to emulate the apostle Paul, the consummate Christian insider, who in the epistle for this week contemplates the real and harrowing possibility of his own banishment to outsider perdition (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).”
--“The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself” by Dan Clendenin

“So Naaman departed and took much treasure with him. Yet the price which Naaman had to pay to be healed of his leprosy was even greater than that. Money can do much, yet it never yet purchased for a [person] the healing of [the] soul
or thepeace of [the] mind.”
--“II Kings Exposition” by Raymond Calkins in The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3

Also, as Jennie pointed out, there is the honor/shame system of the Ancient Near East to consider. This should be interesting!

Breaking Boundaries--Thoughts for the 10th

Moving right along, I am guest-preaching this coming weekend at a nearby church in Lincoln. As I mentioned earlier, this church will be using the lectionary texts, and are having a “Women in Ministry” Sunday. Essentially, this means that all parts of the service will be facilitated by women (except presiding at the table since the available ordained people at this church are men).

At first, I was a bit nervous about preaching a faithful and contextually relevant sermon. However, both the Gospel and Old Testament texts this week contain stories in which very unexpected people are lifted up as examples of faith. This would lend itself to celebrating the boundaries that have been dismissed as well as looking to ones that may still need to be.

In the Gospel pericope, the Samaritan is the one leper who turns back to thank Jesus for his healing. Earlier in Luke, Jesus had referenced the story of Naaman (this week’s First Reading) as the foreigner who acknowledged Elisha as a prophet and was healed. While these selections have complementary themes, I think my focus might lean towards the lesson from 2 Kings 5.

Simply looking at this text from 2 Kings becomes confusing when trying to figure out who is 'in' or 'out.' As the situation and context change for the people mentioned, so does their perceived status. A quick attempt to attach such labels might look like this:

Naaman himself is a commander in the Syrian army (insider), but is a leper (outsider). In his house is an Israelite maid (outsider in Syria) who serves his wife and tells them of a prophet in Israel (where she is an insider). Naaman goes to Israel (as an outsider), bringing a letter from the king of Syria (where he is an insider), which makes the king of Israel think that the demand to cure leprosy is a trap intended to start a quarrel with Syria. He remembers the prophet Elisha (insider), and sends Naaman there. Elisha does not come out to greet Naaman, but orders him from afar to go wash (treated as outsider). Naaman is offended by this treatment (outsider thinking he should be an insider), but does what is asked with the encouragement of his servants. He is healed (insider), and goes to thank Elisha and praise God (acknowledging his place as a person for whom the boundaries have been broken).

The intricate complexities of this story mirror those of our modern society. When we start thinking about who is “in” or “out,” we almost inevitably set ourselves up for a shock. Both the Old Testament and Gospel texts seem to be advocating a sort of breaking down of those social boundaries. I will be interested to see how the commentaries address these issues.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sermon--October 2-3

Luke 17:5-10; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9
It’s a fairly average day. You wake up, get dressed, maybe eat breakfast, brush your teeth, and head out the door. Go through the normal routine. By the third or fourth cup of coffee or can of soda you start waking up. You try to catch up or keep up with the work at hand, and wonder if there is supposed to be more to a day than this. It’s not really a bad day, but it’s not a good one either. Nothing bad happened, but you didn’t really make a difference anywhere, and that’s the problem. Nothing happened. The status quo remains. You go home, sleep, and hope tomorrow is better. Tomorrow you’ll make a difference. Today was just…today. You survived.

How many of you can remember having at least one of those blah days? Yeah. We all have those days. It’s no use pretending that there aren’t days when we just don’t feel totally with it. Days where we’re not at the top of our game, ready to tackle all of the tasks before us, or even completely awake. I think it’s safe to say the people in today’s readings are also having one of those days. They’ve had a lot of…stuff…laid on them recently. They want to see something done about it, but just can’t seem to get going. Habakkuk sees the wicked prospering and can’t understand where God is in all of this. The disciples have gotten some requirements from Jesus about how they should live and what they should do, and they’re just trying to keep up. Even the Psalmist seems to be trying to cope with the social imbalance of the wider world.

…tired days, stressful days, days when that one little thing seems to be the last straw, days where we simply go through the motions to survive, days when we don’t think we can take another minute of whatever is happening, but we have to keep pretending that we’re just fine and happy about it all.

Enough is enough. We don’t have the energy to deal with all of this and keep a smile on our faces. Enough is enough. We don’t see it getting better any time soon, and we even maybe think we’ve failed. We’re not alone in this. We’ve got a history stretching back thousands of years filled with faithful people—role models, even—who have had days just like this. Having bad days is not a new problem. The disciples feel the weight of living their lives, too. They call out “Increase our faith!” Before them, Habakkuk sighs “How long, O God?” We are most definitely not alone.
And we haven’t failed, either. Such days happen, and they happen to everyone. Is it okay to have an off day? Of course. God doesn’t leave us just because we’re not feeling “happy” about everything. In fact, there’s really no interest in any of these stories for putting on a false happy face. Honesty, authenticity is what is recognized here. What happens when Habakkuk voices his honest frustration? God answers. God says, this might not happen right now, but the vision will be fulfilled. What happens when the disciples say they don’t think they have enough faith? Jesus answers, you do. Faith as small as a mustard seed is enough.

God answers, Jesus answers, the Holy Spirit empowers us to move on. We will have bad days, but we won’t be stuck on our own in them. Perhaps the question is not whether we will have these days, or even if it is okay to have them, but what we do when we’re in the midst of those days. What are we looking for?

The disciples ask for more faith. This seems admirable at first glance. The disciples acknowledge that God is the source of faith, that it’s not something they can supply for themselves. Why do they ask, though? Maybe they want to better live the life God has called them to live. Maybe they want to heal more, forgive more, cause no one to stumble. It’s really speculation at this point. Maybe they want to be told they did well. Maybe they want to be told they are done with their work. Maybe they want someone to say “thank you.” Maybe they want to know that they’re not totally missing the point.

Jesus answers them. He says, if you have faith like a mustard seed you could tell this tree to replant itself, and it would. Jesus isn’t trying to make fun of the disciples, but simply telling them that the faith God gives is enough...something the size of a mustard seed is enough. Be ready, though, because the mustard seed has the ability to change, to grow, to produce and scatter more seeds. In these few words, Jesus reminds them that they have this faith, they just need to realize it. They are doing just fine, and they are going to be all right.

And Jesus goes on. Speaking as a servant himself, he says, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"” It’s a word of caution. Are we looking to earn thanks or praise? We are the servants. When all is said and done, there is nothing we might do to earn thanks or praise or anything from God. All is a gift, including the faith we need—and have—to get through the day.

It’s okay to have bad days, yes, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck in them forever. Jesus calls the disciples back to the reality of their lives of service. He reminds them that they are part of a larger community, and that they do have the faith it takes to face their challenges, even if sometimes they need to be reminded of it.

We say it nearly every week in church “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The church, the communion of saints—a history stretching from Adam to Habakkuk to the disciples to the person sitting next to you today.

It is not just one person—me or you—left to face the world and the day to day trials that come with it. We are connected to something much bigger—the body of Christ. Some days, I confess, I do feel like the hand or foot that fell asleep, but I also realize that there are eyes and ears and voices working on those days. On those days, I can lean on and take comfort in the witness of the larger community—the witness of Habakkuk as well as the witness of the person next to me. On those days, I take comfort in knowing somewhere out there is the arm or leg that will shake me awake. Eventually, the dreary day will pass for me, and perhaps I can be that person for someone else to lean on. Maybe on that day it will be my turn to shake someone else awake.

God answers Habakkuk, saying that the world as it is will not change magically overnight, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. It is an answer for us as well. Our world will not change to perfection, there are no promises of happiness or elation each and every day, but that doesn’t mean we have failed. Like Habakkuk and the disciples, we listen for God and remember that life is not all bad days, either. It’s full of good and bad and in between. Each one is a gift and opportunity to live faithfully and remember our connection to the larger community of faith, where it’s okay to be yourself—happy, sad, joyful, sorrowful, and just blah.

Jesus answers the disciples, saying that they already have what they need to face the world around them and affect the change they seek. This is also an answer for us. We have what we need to face the world around us. We remember that each day is a new possibility, a chance for us to learn from the mistakes of yesterday even as we leave them behind and try again. It’s a chance to live, to learn, to look for and find those moments when life makes sense again—when we hear Jesus saying, “You’re doing just fine, and you’re going to be all right, keep going.”