Sunday, October 9, 2016

Already Given

Luke 17:11-19

At first glance, this is a story about how your mother was right.
Your mother – or whoever taught you to write thank you notes, to express gratitude as well as gratification at getting what you wanted – was teaching you something holy, something that Jesus cares about.

At first glance, it’s about gratitude, but just a little bit deeper than the surface, it is also a story about salvation, about just what it is that brings us into whole and holy relationship with God and one another, even strangers and enemies.

Ten people with leprosy encounter Jesus:
they pray for mercy, and receive a cure.

“Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus says.
And by obeying his commandment, they are cured – their skin is made clean – and when the priests see that, they can be restored to their community. They can take up their lives again, be who they used to be, among their friends and family, the life they had to give up in their illness.

That’s what we mostly pray for, I suspect, when we are ill, or when someone else is sick. It’s certainly the cure I pray for when one of you is on my prayer list: That you may be well again: recovered and strong, restored to the community and relationships and daily tasks and pleasures that surgery or cancer or some other injury or illness has interrupted.
That restoration is healing, not just for the body, but for the spirit.

And often – not always – but often, we receive what we have prayed for. The cancer remits, the broken bone heals, the surgery is successful. Sometimes the cure leaves us different – not fully back to normal, changed a bit, but out of danger,  and with cause to rejoice, to hope, and to take up our normal lives again.

That story of answered prayer is the nine lepers’ story.
They ask for healing; they obey their healer;
they are cured, and can go home rejoicing.

But then there’s the tenth leper.
He doesn’t go on his way to getting his life back, instead he turns around in the midst of his healing, praising God, to fall at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving.

And when he – a man who belongs to the wrong religion; a man who has no business claiming to know our God, Jesus’ God – when he gives voice to the wonders and power of God, to his own gratitude,
that’s when Jesus sees it, and says, “Your faith has saved you.”

It wasn’t getting religion right. It wasn’t faithful prayer, it wasn’t asking for the cure, it wasn’t following Jesus’ commands that saved him. The faith that saved him wasn’t the ways we normally measure our faith – prayer, persistence, obedience, trust – all ten of the lepers had that, and all ten of the lepers were cured.
What saves this man is something else.

I’m reminded of something Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans says, at the end of her “Year of Biblical Womanhood.” She spent a year trying to follow literally all of the Bible’s rules for women – rules for everything from silence and obedience to charity, investment, executive homemaking, and ritual purity, and she reflects, at the end of her project, on how we all seem to come to the Bible, to the Word of God, looking for something.
And whatever we look for, she says – whether it is liberation, war, peace, oppression, truth, or irrelevance – we will find it.

Evans says she dove into the Bible in her project looking for a good story. And she found one.
But also, she was looking for permission: “permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman.”

She was looking for a kind of healing, a restoration to wholeness of her sense of self in the midst of her holy community.
But, “what a surprise,” she says, “to reach the end of the year with the quiet and liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it. It had already been given."

She never had to ask.
We never had to ask.
It is already given.

Perhaps this is what that tenth leper recognizes: That what he was looking for has already been given. Not just healing, but salvation.

We ask often for healing – we’re trained to pray for healing – for the cleansing of illness, restoration to community, the end of pain.
What we look for, we will find.
But what our hearts seek more deeply, the longing below and above the things we know how to ask or seek, what we truly need when we ask for other things,
is the power of real encounter with the living God.

And before we ask – whether or not we ask! – that real presence of God is already given.
And the difference between healing and salvation in this story lies in the tenth leper’s recognition of that gift.

Undoubtedly, each of the other nine lepers celebrated their cleansing, and were thankful. They have a healing story to tell, but they aren’t telling a story about an encounter with the living God.
The nine got what they asked for, looked for, while tenth leper saw through the healing to the truth that the prayer he had never asked was answered,
that God had come face-to-face with him, living and active,
more real than his miracle or his prayer.

The power of that real encounter with God, living and active – hyper-present, excessively among us – is what we all come looking for – in the Bible, in the church, in the world – whether we know it or not.

Two thousand years after that encounter with this leper, God is still so committed to us and our wholeness that God continues to come face to face with us, even if we never know how to ask for that encounter our souls are starving for.

The remarkable thing that tenth leper does is to recognize that already given, unasked gift. And when he does, it spins him around in the midst of his healing, to return with the praise and thanksgiving of his salvation pouring off his tongue:
making that real encounter visible to the world,
opening that recognition to others who long for the living God without ever knowing how to ask.
And that recognition is the greatest possible act of our faith.
It saves us.

This story teaches us to say thank you.
It teaches that when we pray, God responds - often with the healing we ask for, equally often in a way we don’t quite understand.

And then it teaches that what saves us is not the answer to our prayers, but our own recognition that the gifts we can’t begin to ask for are already given, and our response of praise and thanks that pours that grace out to all the world.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Missing Piece

Luke 15:1-10

Suppose you are carrying around one hundred $10 bills, and you notice that one of them is missing. So you drop your wallet with $990 in it, and go racing off in search of your missing $10. You find it, and go home waving it triumphantly, calling all your neighbors (or perhaps, you post it on Instagram and text everyone you know) to come party with you tonight, because you found your $10.

You laughed, didn’t you? It’s foolish to make all that fuss about $10, and especially to abandon nearly $1000 in search of a mere one percent of the cash.
But if that’s a story about repentance, I’m even more lost.

Just so, Jesus tells us, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
It’s ridiculous to think that a ten-dollar bill represents a repentant sinner. Cash can’t repent. Neither do sheep, in the original Jesus story, and Jesus knows that.

But Jesus tells this story of the shepherd abandoning the many to find one lost sheep, and a woman who abandons her necessary daily work or much needed rest to find – right now! – the ten percent of her savings that she’s misplaced.
Luke tells us that this is about sinners, Pharisees, and repentance;
and we are left to find the relationship, the connection that makes nonsense into the truth at the heart of our relationship with God.

What the stories today have in common is extravagant: the abandonment of everything else in the pursuit of one thing missing, and the insistent celebration when the missing is found.
But why all that fuss for one little thing?

Often, in the gospels, in the absurd logic of God, what matters is completion, as if that one thing – one sheep, one coin – is the last piece of a puzzle. While you can see the picture with one piece, one pixel missing, that little random hole is frustrating, haunting, and finding the missing piece and putting it – completing the puzzle – provides a satisfaction all out of proportion to the work or the rational value involved.

Wholeness matters.
Its absence is what keeps us awake at night.
It’s what we lose when someone dear to us dies.
It’s what allows us to move on from tasks and relationships when we have to let go.

And wholeness, completion, is the defining goal in God’s relationship with us. Scripture is full of stories about how God has been seeking the wholeness of creation and humanity above all else, from the very moment of our beginning.

And that’s where Jesus’ stories about the sheep and the cash began today, too. The Pharisees – the ones most faithful and careful about our righteousness and God’s – complain that Jesus is damaging God’s righteousness by welcoming and eating with sinners, with people who don’t belong to God’s community, because they care only for themselves.
And Jesus tells them stories about missing pieces and completion.

It seems that those people –the ones who obviously have no use for God, those people, the ones who disrupt and even hurt the community – those people are part of the whole of the Kingdom of God.

And God is so serious about that wholeness that Jesus will welcome them, eat with them, treat them as family, even while they are still sinners, still so focused on their own advantage that they don’t care about the community, and just as incapable of repentance as a $10 bill or a sheep.

That’s a shock for the Pharisees, and a shock for us when we apply that sense of completeness not so much to tax-collectors as to our own century’s betrayers of the community good:
terrorists, Congress (more particularly, the politicians of the “other party”), corporate executives who ship jobs overseas, or quadruple the cost of a life-saving epi pen; protestors who snarl traffic or seem to question our national values, or police who break their our trust.

To imagine that God welcomes, that Jesus seeks out those people, before they repent  – even if they never repent! – to imagine that neither heaven when we encounter it, nor God’s reign on earth, is complete without those people, unchanged, is messy and a little bit offensive.

But it begins to make sense if repentance is about completion. About finding the missing parts in our community, in our work, our families, our selves – even the ugly, awkward missing parts –and celebrating the finding.

It is definitely the work of repentance to seek wholeness.
And seeking the wholeness of our community sometimes requires sacrifice, requires letting go of the good we’d like to hold on to.

Elsewhere in the gospel stories Jesus encounters a rich young man: a man who has kept all the commandments since childhood, a man with all the signs of God’s favor, but incomplete.
“What must I do to receive eternal life?” he asks.
“There is only one thing you are missing,” Jesus answers: “Sell all that you have; give the money to the poor, and come follow me.”

One thing missing. But that one thing is a transformation.
Let go of the much that you have in pursuit of the one thing you’re missing. Put the wholeness of the community ahead of yourself, and come, follow me.

What would Jesus tell you, us, is the one thing lacking, between us and wholeness, eternal life?

Who are the people who don’t seem to fit here, but without whom we cannot be complete?
It might be color, or physical handicap, or sexuality – the obvious divisions in our culture – that separates us from the people our community is missing, but it might also be political opinion, activism, behaviors that threaten our own sense of righteousness and security.

This may be a particularly important question today, this week, as we remember, and grieve, and reflect on the changes in our world, in our definitions and expectations of wholeness, after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
It might be a particularly good time to ask ourselves: What do we have to let go of to welcome those missing people to the table without insisting that they change to fit in?

And ask yourself: what is the part of your life that keeps you from following Jesus with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength?
It might be a part of you that you have denied, because it’s uncomfortable, and doesn’t fit.
Or it might be that your missing piece is hiding behind something you want to hold on to.
What do you have to let go to embrace that missing piece?

That’s repentance.
Pursuit of the one, small, missing thing, because it is not a small thing, it is the only thing that matters, when it makes the difference between wholeness and wrongness; between integrity and brokenness.

And that – the foolish, glorious, commitment to the pursuit of wholeness – produces overwhelming joy in heaven, and delight in the heart of the God who brought us into the kingdom, into eternal life, before we were ever ready, or repentant, or whole.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Counting the Cost

Luke 14:25-33

Imagine one of your friends saying to you: “Oh, you’ve got to come to my church. It’s amazing!
They teach you to hate your family; to hate your parents, your kids, your spouse – to hate your life! It’s transformed me into a totally new person, you’ve got to try it!”

Makes you want to join right up, doesn’t it?  No?
Or is your friend crazy?
At the very least, your hypothetical friend is putting out one heck of a mixed message, with this bubbling enthusiasm for family hatred and an apparent death wish.

I mean, really, who wants to join a church that’s all about hating everyone, killing yourself, being made fun of, and giving up on success and accomplishment?
Not even in my most everything-hating teenage moments did I want to join a group that would advertise themselves like that.

And yet, that is exactly the message Jesus is pushing today – and not even to his inner circle, who’ve gotten at least a little used to all his talk of self-denial and disruption. This is a public advertising pitch to the curious crowds, the religious “seekers” or visitors, who’ve come to see what’s up with this Jesus movement.

It’s not a church-growth strategy, to say the least, and it’s not a message I’m going to approve for the sign outside or the front page of Calvary’s website.

We can’t afford that.
I mean, we have a hard enough time with evangelism when it means telling people about Jesus who loves generously and teaches us to love others, Jesus who proclaims and gives abundant life, Jesus who heals us when the world mocks us, and lends strength when we’ve been rejected.

I will bet real money that there’s not one person in this room who wants to try to sell family hatred, a death wish, and ridicule as a transformative religious experience. That’s not going to “grow the church.”

Sometimes it seems like Jesus is our greatest liability as a church, as well as our greatest asset. He’s actively trying to drive people away today, and he’s rejecting and insulting one of the things we’ve gotten used to thinking of as a core “Christian value” – loving and respecting your family.

The first century crowds must have reacted to this much the same way twenty-first century crowds are reacting to Colin Kaepernick sitting for the national anthem: quick offense at the way this pushes the buttons of our comfortable allegiance to good and trustworthy values, spirited but confused defenses of what “freedom” or “love” really mean, and a persistent discomfort with the way that somehow, some of these things that seem wrong are right… but several real “rights” are still making things wrong.

It’s messy. And it gets more so.
Although Jesus sets out to explain something we’ve heard before – that no one can become his disciple without carrying the cross, without giving away all our possessions – his examples seem a little contradictory.

Think through your commitment to discipleship, he tells us, because otherwise you’ll be like this guy who ran out of money in the middle of a building project, and people made fun of him.
But everyone in his first audience – like many of you – knows that a cross is an even better guarantee of mockery, taunting, and shame than an unfinished building project.

Think through the consequences of following me, he warns, because if you don’t you’ll be like a king who fielded a totally outnumbered army and got slaughtered.
But a cross is going to get you killed even more certainly than two-to-one odds in an even fight.

Even his advice about carefully considering the cost, asking seriously if you can afford this, suggests a completely opposite mindset to his insistence that you have to give up everything – every bit of your money and possessions – to be a disciple.
No one can rationally “afford” that.

What a mess.
If he were in preaching class or marketing, we’d send him right back to the drawing board, and be shaking our heads.

But this is classic Jesus, after all: Contradictions R Us.
God is human; last is first; death is life…

And there might be something to his contradictions today, too.

One biblical scholar tries to redeem this mixed message of Jesus’ by suggesting that his stories of the tower-builder and war-cost-counting king are actually assurances to us that GOD didn’t dive into this salvation project without a cost analysis, and that God has made sure of the resources to complete it, to see us through.

That’s good news, all right, because it was just as evident to Jesus’ first audience as it could be to any of us that it’s going to take quite a lot in the way of miracle and divine intervention to save this messed up world.
And as for some of those people I know I mean for US  well, God’s going to need to have a pretty big salvation budget, and unlimited patience.

Come to think of it, when you look at the history of our salvation, God has a lot more resemblance to a builder who plunges in to the project knowing it can never be completed
than to a rational homeowner who holds off on tearing out the kitchen until there’s enough in the budget to actually put a new one in.

And that suggests to me that Jesus’ messages today are mixed on purpose. That to be a disciple absolutely requires knowing the cost – knowing it means a loss of identity, and security, and even of all those respectable things we’ve come to think of as “good Christian values,” knowing there’s a pretty good chance it could kill us, even now, if we go all in – and making the whole commitment knowing that our resources will come up short.
We’ll fail.

You and I – like the curious first-century crowds Jesus said all this to, like even the tight circle of apostles at the resurrection – you and I cannot complete the task. We can never fully accomplish the work of following Jesus, of becoming that completely one with God.
Can’t finish the task of saving the world before we die.

We’ll fail.
But because we counted the cost, knew the demands and the value of what we’re plunging into, we may just complete ourselves by giving every bit of these selves to the unfinished and unfinishable work of eternal life.

It’s not a church-growth strategy, and it may never make sense as an invitation into the Jesus movement, but it matters in a way beyond sense.

The messages God presents are often going to seem mixed, as we encounter them not only in the church but in the choices of our weekday lives.
Being with Jesus – being like Jesus – always means being prepared for the impossible; and asks us to commit ourselves, ready to fail, so that God can succeed beyond our hope or expectation.

Because that transformation, mixed up and incomplete as it will always be, is exactly what God counts, when God gives it all for us.